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Authors: Phoebe Conn

Tags: #Indian captivities, #Dakota Indians

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BOOK: Tender savage
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She was wearing a dress of rose-colored chintz that day, one far more practical for walking through the woods than her blue gown, although it was still far too pretty for such informal wear. Erica had no less festive clothes, however. She hadn't wanted to hgve any gowns made in tailored styles from simple fabrics esF>ecially for wear in the store, since that would have been admitting she would be there for some months to come, which was an

eventuality she still refused to accept.

As she reached the river and be^n the winding path alongside it, she realized she had paid such scant attention to how far she had walked the previous afternoon that she wasn't sure she could return to the same spot. She might not go far enough, or she might walk right jwst the elm tree where she had sat without recognizing it. She was furious with herself for having lost Mark's letter and traveled along scanning the trail so intendy that she did not see the Indian she had hoped to avoid until she was within a few feet of him. She saw the brightly beaded tips of his moccasins first, and, startled, jumped back.

The Indian had been fishing, and recognizing therusde of Erica's full skirt as she approached he had laid his line aside and risen to meet her. That she seemed flustered amused him, for he could think of no reason she would come back to the woods unless she had wanted to see him. He was accustomed to being popular with women, but certainly not with her kincL He did not greet her, but simply looked her up and down slowly, wondering a^in why she wore such fancy clothes. Her cheeks were filled with a blush as bright a pink as her gown, but he doubted she could be as shy as she appeared and pursue him so boldly. When she made no effort to greet him either, he finally spoke. "I know many of your men have gone to war, but if you are seeking me out because you are lonely, I—"

Erica interrupted before the arrogant Indian could complete the sentence with what she was certain would be another insult. 'Tou are the very last person I wished to meet," she assured him emphatically. "I dropped an important letter I had with me yesterday and I'm looking only for that."

Her story sounded false to his ears, but the Indian did not call her a liar to her face. "A letter?" he asked skeptically instead.

Thinking the man did not understand what it was she had lost, Enca quickly described what she meant. "Yes, a letter. A message written on two sheets of paper. They're in a beige-colored envelope addressed to me. I must have dropped it while we were talking."

"Then why are you looking for it here?" the man asked with a sly smile, thinking he had trapped her into

admitting she had been looking for him all along.

Puzzled, Erica wondered if she had misunderstood his question. "Well, where else would I be looking for it if I lost it here?"

"We were not here yesterday," the Indian replied, his smile widening into a taunting grin.

Elrica looked around quickly, thinking the scenery looked no different than it had since she had left the outskirts of town. She wasn't lost, since all she had to do was follow the river back downstream to return to New Ulm. Exasperated, she looked to the Indian for help. "I'm sorry, but I've no real idea just where we were yesterday. Have I come too far, or not far enough?"

Her deep blue gaze seemed so truly innocent that the man thought she was either extremely clever or actually speaking the truth. He could not tell which. "We were closer to town. You have come too far," he advised her matter-of-factly.

Erica immediately lifted her skirts and turned away. "Thank you. I'm sorry I disturbed you again."

When she left him so suddenly, the Indian was too curious to let her go. He still doubted she had lost a letter and decided to make her admit she had come to see him instead. "WaitI" he shouted, meaning to call her bluff. "I will help you look."

Erica waited for him to overtake her, then refused his offer F>olitely. "Thank you, but if you'll just point out the spot where we stood yesterday I'm certain I can search for it adequately by myself."

"I am tired of fishing," the Indian responded with a careless shrug. "The letter might have blown into a tree and be out of your reach."

"Oh, I doubt it would have blown away. The paper was an expensive bond so the envelope was fairly heavy." When the Indian seemed unconvinced by her words and did not turn back. Erica gave up her efforts to continue on alone, but she didn't speak to him again until he reached out his hand to stop her.

"You said you were sitting there, by that tree."

The elm looked like all the others she had seen that afternoon, but Erica took his word it was the one she was seeking. The gprass along the riverbank was thick, and she spent several minutes looking through it before she looked

up to find the Indian simply staring at her. "I thought you wanted to help me."

The man nodded and began a methodical search of the underbrush as well as the overhanging branches, but he kept his face turned away so she would not see his smile. He was beginning to get used to the way she looked and decided she was probably considered quite pretty by white men. From the slender lines of her throat and arms he guessed she might also have attractive legs, but like all white women she wore so many layers of clothing he had to rely ujxjn his imagination for the details of her figure not exposed to his view. Fortunately, he had a very lively imagination. When he was satisfied they would never find the letter whose existence he still doubted, he straightened up smd turned back toward her. "Why is this letter so impxjrtant?" he asked.

Erica was also convinced the letter simply wasn't there and ceased looking for it to reply. "It's from—" she hesitated then as she noticed that the Indian looked far different that day. He was no less handsome, he just looked more like an Indian. He had braided feathers into his hair, and while his chest was still bare, he wore a leather thong around his neck from which were suspended a half-dozen of the longest, sharpest claws she had ever seen. Totally distracted, she had to ask him to reF>eat his question.

"I'm sorry, what did you ask?"

"Why is the letter important?" the Indian repeated in a louder tone, not understanding how she could have forgotten his question in the middle of answering it.

"Oh yes, of course." Eria felt very foolish then, but she still didn't want to reveal she had a fiance, even to him. "It's from a friend who's in the army, and unless I find it I won't have his address to send a reply."

"His name is not enough?" the helpful man inquired.

"No, I need to know the number of his company, that sort of thing."

The Indian nodded as he stepped forward, still thinking it likely she had made up the tale about a letter as an excuse to see him. "Is the man your husband, or a lover?"

"Neitherl" Ereica denied indignantly, tears stinging her eyes at the bitter irony of his question, but she quickly blinked them away

"Then why did you come so far from town to read it?"

the Indian asked as he moved another step closer.

Since that was none of his business, Erica began to back away, but bumped into the tree she had forgotten stood directly behind her. Embarrassed to appear so clumsy, she picked up her skirts to make ready to leave. "I enjoy privacy as greatly as you do, that's all. I've no more time to look for the letter now, though. I must be going. Thank you for your help."

Before she could turn away, the Indian reached out to stop her. He laid his hand lightly upon her arm as he tried to charm her with a ready grin every bit as dazzling as she had imagined his smile would be. "Will you come back tomorrow?"

His hand was warm, his touch light, and Erica saw something far different from hostility in his glance and |;rew frightened. What in God's name was she doing alone m the woods conversing with a half-clothed savage as though he were a gentleman?

"No. I probably could not even locate the right spot, and if we couldn't find the letter today, then surely it's lost and we never will."

Her reaction was not that of a woman who was inviting a man's attention, and surprised to see she had not enjoyed his touch, the Indian withdrew his hand and stepped back. He still thought her story a lie but went along with it. "If I find your letter, where shall I bring it?"

"You'd bring it to me?" Erica asked hesitantly, certain she should not provide him with the directions to her aunt and uncle's home.

"Well, if you do not want the letter then I will not bother to bring it to you,"' the man responded gruffly, clearly annoyed by her nonsensical question. Perhaps she had only thought she wanted an Indian lover and had changed her mind upon seeing him for the second time. It was an insulting thought and his expression became the stern one she had seen the previous afternoon.

Since she had not meant to insult him but obviously had. Erica quickly apologized. "I'm sorry if I said something to upset you. It was unintentional. If you do find my letter, woula you please bring it to Ludwig's Dry Goods? Do you know where it is?"

The Indian nodded. "I know which store it is. Do you trust the people there to give it to you?"

"Yes, the Ludwigs are my aunt and uncle," Erica explained with a nervous smile. "If I'm not there, they will brmg it home to me. Thank youl" she called over her shoulder as she hurried away. She doubted the Indian would find Mark's letter, or that he would bother to bring it to her, but the thought of his walking into the store and asking for her made her laugh all the way home.

The Indian returned to his fishing, but he was too deeply puzzled by the woman's behavior to regard their meeting in a humorous light. Pretty young women should not wander the woods alone. Indian maidens knew that, didn't white women? He did not recall seeing a letter the previous afternoon and still thought it had merely been an excuse to see him again. Yet even when she had seen him, the woman had not seemed pleased. What a strange person she was: pretty, but possessing no sense at all.

The next afternoon the Indian was restless. He kept expecting the woman to return, and when she did not he was more disappointed than he cared to admit. Thinking he had been out hunting and fishing alone too long, he told himself he had merely been hungry for a companion of any sort, even a reluctant yellow-haired woman. Deciding that that was a sign it was time to go home, he erased all traces of his camp but on an impulse returned to the spot where he had first met the woman. Simply to satisfy his own mind, he gave the area another thorough search, moving downstream to cover more ground than he had with her.

When he actually found the letter he was shocked to discover the woman had been telling the truth. The envelope was soiled, one comer chewed off by an ambitious squirrel who had apparently carried it some distance from where he had found it before discovering it wasn't something tasty to eat. The Indian turned the envelope over in his hands. It was damp near the river at night, and the ink had run so the name and address were too blurred to read. He knew it was not polite to read a letter meant for someone else, but since he could not make out the name, how could he be sure this was the woman's letter?

His only choice clear, the Indian removed the stationery, which, while somewhat wrinkled, was in better condition than the envelope. He had learned to read and write

English from a well-meaning missionary who had wished to convert him to Christianity. The religion of the white man did not interest him, but he had known even as a child that it would be wise to learn all he could about the white men who seemed determined to overrun his world. Squatting down by the river's edge, he read the letter with deliberate care, pronouncing each of the words in his mind. He had not heard the name Erica before, but spoke it aloud several times before deciding he liked it. Finding precisely what the woman had said it was, a letter from a man who app>eared to be no more than a friend, he returned the stationery to the tattered envelope and straightened up.

He had said he would return the letter if he found it. He could toss it in the river, burn it, or take it home with him, and the pretty blond woman named Erica would never know he had it. He would know, however, and he had told her he would bring it to her. Why he had made such a ridiculous promise he didn' t know. The question now was whether or not it would be wise to honor it.

The following day. Erica had just cut ten yards of lace for a customer when the usual hum of conversation that filled the busy store came to an abrupt end. As she handed the woman her neatly wrapped package and change. Erica saw what had caused the sudden silence. The Indian she had met in the forest had walked through the door and was making his way toward her. His expression was neither friendly nor menacing, but the rifle he carried in his right hand alarmed her. As her customer hurried away, she looked up at the man and tried her best to smile. "Good morning."

"I neSl some shells for my rifle," the Indian replied.

Erica was standing at the counter where yardage was sold, not bullets, but assuming the man was unfamiliar with the arrangement of the merchandise, she nodded toward the opposite side of the well-stocked store. "My uncle will have to help you, then, as I've no idea what you need." To the buckskin pants and moccasins she had seen him wearing the day before he had added a fringed buckskin shirt elaborately decorated with beadwork. It lent him a slightly more avilized air, but when he seemed

confused she came out from behind the counter. "I'll come with you. I really should learn where everything is kept myself."

The Indian's eyes were focused upon the gentle sway of Erica's hips as he followed her across the store, but he did not complain that she could not see to his request herself. Knowing the store owner's first question would be whether or not he had the money to pay for what he wanted, he tossed the coins on the counter as he again asked for shells.

Erica noted the strain in her uncle's expression and thought it must be because they seldom had Indians come in the store. She made a point of noticing upon which shelves the shells were kept and tried to ignore the fact that the other customers were all staring at the Indian. Despite the fact that he was a good-looking man, obviously clean, and neatly dressed, the glances directed his way were hostile, and since he was behaving p>olitely she thought that rudeness completely uncalled for.

BOOK: Tender savage
11.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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