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Authors: Phoebe Conn

Tags: #Indian captivities, #Dakota Indians

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BOOK: Tender savage
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After he had picked up the box of shells, the Indian turned toward the door, gesturing to Erica with a barely perceptible nod for her to follow him. When she did, he had difficulty hiding his grin, but he stopped before reaching the door. "I have your letter," he confided softly.

"You dol" Erica's deep blue eyes danced with excitement. "Well, where is it? Didn't you bring it with you?"

The Indian shook his head as he flashed her an enticing grin. "You'll have to come get it this afternoon. Don't be late. Erica, or I'll be gone."

With that surprising invitation the Indian strode out the door, leaving Erica both entranced by his smile and dismayed by his words. She was positive she had not told him her name, so he must have not only found the letter, but read it! When her uncle tapped her uf>on the shoulder, she jumped in surprise. "Oh yes. Uncle Karl, what is it?"

"What is it?" the man repeated, his gaze one of wide-eyed wonder. "Come in the back for a moment, I need to speak with you."

Erica feared she knew what was coming even before they reached the storeroom. If he had guessed she and the Indian were acquainted, she knew she dared not explain how they had met. Her mind searching frantically for some plausible excuse for knowing the brave, she was

enormously relieved when her uncle did not begin with a string of embarrassing questions.

"That Indian goes by the name of Viper, which suits him well. Being a city girl you might not ever have seen a snake, let alone a rattler like we have here. Rattlesnakes have no fears, and neither does that brave. That he'd march right in here and speak to you proves that fact. He's every bit as dangerous as those cougar claws he wears around his neck, and if he ever comes near you again, you come running straight to me."

Erica knew that the Indian had a fierce nature. He had swiftly proven that when they had first met. He also possessed a reasonable side, and she was far more intrigued by his request that she meet him again that afternoon than frightened, since his smile had held such a teasing warmth. That an Indian brave could be as charming as a white man was a surprise, and she wondered what else she might learn about him if given the chance. "What has he done that makes everyone seem so frightened of him?"

Karl leaned back against a wooden crate and folded his arms across his chest as he replied. "I told you New Ulm is more than thirty-five miles below the Lower Agency, so he ought to know better than to come hunting way down here. Oh, there are plenty like him who continue to roam around ignoring the fact this is no longer Sious territory, but few of them are mixed bloods like him."

"Mixed bloods?" Erica wasn't certain what that term meant.

"He's part white. Didn't you notice his eyes?"

Erica wasn't sure whether or not she should admit that she had, but she did. "His eyes were gray, but he certainly looks all Indian to me."

"I'm sure he considers himself all Indian too, but those light eyes give away his mixed heritage. What did he say to you as he was leaving?"

Now that Karl had finally asked the question she had been dreading. Erica blushed shyly and made up an answer she hoped he would believe. "He just thanked me for helping him get the shells and said I was pretty."

"You see what I mean?" Karl responded angrily. "No white man would dare talk to you that boldly."

Since her uncle had believed her lie. Erica relaxed

slightly. "Weil, perhaps Indian girls expect compliments like that and he thought I'd be flattered. Now, since the store is full of customers, I think we better not neglect them any longer or they might take their business elsewhere."

That his attractive niece had proven to be such a practical young woman pleased Karl immensely, and with a hearty chuckle he followed her back out into the store where he found business as brisk as she had described it.

Erica thou^t she had met the Indian each afternoon sometime between the hours of one and two. She didn't foresee any trouble meeting him that day until her uncle invited the most persistent of her unwanted suitors, a young farmer by the name of Ernst Schramberger, to come home with them for the midday meal. Ernst was a tall, heavy-set man with blue-gray eyes and light brown hair that had begun to turn gray at the temples. Each time he smiled at her his desire was so undisguised that Erica felt as though she were actually being crushed in the bear hugs he was clearly quite anxious to give her. She would then have to lay her fork aside and take several deep breaths to reassure herself her imagination was playing tricks upon her, but she had seldom endured a more uncomfortable meal. It was not that the man was homely, nor was his personality unpleasant, but she simply did not find him appealing, ana she couldn't wait for him to go so she could be on her way. When he finally left with her uncle, she helped her aunt clean up the kitchen, then slipped out the back door with her usual excuse that she wished to go out for a walk.

Since it had been past two-thirty when she had left home, Erica hoped the Indian had not been serious when he had warned her not to be late. She was already late, but she had taken only half a dozen running steps from the house when Gunter fell in by her side. First Ernst and now Gunter, she moaned inwardly. Was there going to be no way for her to enter the forest without being seen?

"I thought it a good afternoon for a walk. Where are you bound?" she asked brightly, praying her cousin was on the way to his parents' store.

Gunter shrugged. "I thought I would gather some wood

to make more carvings."

Her heart filling with dread. Erica was certain he was bent ujx^n taking the same path she had hoped to travel without being followed. "Shouldn't you bring along a rope to bind it, or perhaps a basket to carry it?"

Embarrassed to admit he had not thought that far, Gunter had known only that his charming cousin sometimes went for walks and had wanted to ^o along with her. He tried to hide his oversight by agreemg with her. "Yes, of course, I meant to stop by the store to get a sack."

"Good, then maybe you'll be able to gather enough wood to make something for me." Erica was delighted to find he would have to make a stop at the store, but her compliments on his work were sincere for she thought it showed promise. "I thought the mule you did yesterday turned out very nicely."

Gunter could not help but laugh, since she knew he had hoped to carve a horse. "I think I'd be smart not to tell anyone what it is I aim making until I am finished, but if you will tell me what it is you want, I'll try and make it."

They were nearing the corner where he would have to turn toward the store, while she intended to continue on down to the river. Erica thought for a moment and then knew exactly what she wanted. "Could you make me a cougar?"

"A cougar?" Gunter asked in dismay. "Well, I supfx>se I could try."

"Yes, you do that. I'm sure you can carve a magnificent cougar." Erica brushed his cheek with a quick kiss and hurried away before he recovered enough of his senses to follow her.

The Indian told time by watching the sun's progress across the sky. He knew the hour if not the exact minute, but he began to think himself a great fool for having looked forward to seeing Erica again. He thought of her by her name now, which made the embarrassment that her failure to appear caused him all the more acute. What a fool he had been to walk into townl He could always use more shells for his rifle, but still, had he not told Erica to meet him, she could not have stayed away to purposely disappoint him. He had planned to give her the letter and tell her good-bye, but the longer he waited the more

furious he became with himself for ever growing interested in a white woman in the first place. Had she come to meet him, she would not have thrown herself into his arms. She would probably have taken the letter from his hand and with a coldly polite, "Thank you," gone back home.

Thoroughly disgusted with himself for being so curious about sampling a white woman's affection when Erica's indifference was obviously no coy act but sincere, he finally laid the letter beside the elm tree where he had first seen her and placed a rock on the corner to secure it. His belongings were few, and slinging them across his back, he started up the river, cursing his own conceit with every step.

Erica dashed down the path, looking for the landmarks she had taken the time to note the previous afternoon so she could slow down to a sedate walk before she came upon Viper's camp. When she found only the crumpled letter and no sign of the Indian, she was overwhelmed with disappointment. Why hadn't the man waited for her? Then she realized she had forgotten to bring money to reward him and felt even worse. Looking up the path, she wondered if she might catch sight of him if he hadn't had too great a headstart. Taking a firm hold on the letter this time, she lifted her skirts and continued to follow the river, hoping if she overtook an Indian that it would be he.

When the Indian heard peculiar sounds on the trail at his back he at first mistook the noise for a deer. Stepping behind a pine tree for cover he brought his rifle up to his shoulder. When Erica came into view, he set the rifle aside, and stepf>ed out to greet her."I told you not to be late," he scoldea in so teasing a tone she knew he wasn't truly angry with her.

Out of breath. Erica swept her curls off her forehead and leaning back against the pme, used Mark's letter to fan her flushed cheeks. "I am so sorry. Not only am I dreadfully late, but I've forgotten to bring any money so I can give you a reward."

"I did not ask for money," the Indian exclaimed proudly. That she had plainly exhausted herself trying to catch up to him was so flattering a fact he decided she must like him more than her actions had shown. He still did not

forgive her for being so late, however. "Why did you wait so long to come find me?"

Still gasping for breath, Erica had a ready excuse. "We had a guest at the house for dinner and I couldn't leave when I usually do. I would not have kept you waiting intentionally."

Her bosom heaved most invitingly with each breath she took, and the Indian found it difficult to focus his attention upon her face rather than her enticing curves as he replied "I did not wait," he lied, for indeed he had waited a good hour longer than he had wanted to.

"Well, I've found you to say thank you, and that's all that matters." Erica assured him with a nervous smile. He had discarded his shirt, and the sight of the cougar claw necklace lying upon his bare skin was still a most unsettling one. "My uncle said you're called Viper, is that right?"

The Indian stepped close enough to place his hand upon the tree at her back, and caressed her right cheek with his thumb as he replied in a husky whisf)er. "No, but it is as close as a white man can come to saying my name."

Erica found the directness of the man's ^aze most unsetding. He didn't look at her as Ernst did: almost drooling, but the silver light in his gray eyes was nevertheless much too intense. With the tree at her back and him standing so near, she didn't see how she could avoid such close scrutiny, thoug[h. His touch was, as before, very light, but far too familiar. When she tried to brush his hand away he simply caue;ht hers in a firm grasp and held it. "Please," she whispered, "I wanted only to tell you thank you for finding the letter, and if you are return-mg home to wish you a safe trip."

Her lashes were so long anci thick they provided the perfect frame for her deep blue eyes. But he had not meant to fill them with fright. He kept her hand in his as he said, "You had your letter. You did not have to chase after me just to say thank you."

"Well, no, perhaps not, but—" As Erica looked up at him she suddenly recalled how the water had drippea off the sleek planes of his well-muscled body as he had left the river, and she found herself at a loss for words. She was still having difficulty catching her breath, but it wasn't

because she had been running so hard. She clutched Mark's letter tightly in her free hand, frantically trying to recall how handsome a man he, too, was, but his face wouldn't come clear in her mind. It wavered and danced on the fringe of her memory, refusing, just as he had, to become a part of her.

"Are you a virgin?" the Indian asked perceptively, thinking perhaps inexperience was causing her fright. She had come running after him, so clearly she liked him, but maybe she was too young to know what to do about it.

The impertinence of that question jolted Erica to anger so swiftly that she found it a simple matter to reply. "That is none of your damn business. Viper, or whatever it is you like to be calledl"

The Indian thought again how much he liked her spirit and suggested another name. "You may call me Beloved, if you like."

"Belovedl" Erica nearly shrieked. The man was devilishly handsome, but obviously a rake through and through, and she yanked her hand from his. "I have never before met an Indian brave, but believe me, you have made me sincerely sorry I ever met you!" Again taking the precaution of lifting the front of her skirt, she shoved past him and dashed back down the trail with the same careless haste that had caused him to mistake her for a badly frightened deer. She was dressed in a yellow gown that shimmered in the sunshine, and suddenly he feared a hunter who lacked his cool head and sharp eyes might also mistake her for a deer moving between the trees and shoot her. Tossing his gear aside, he tore down the trail after her.

The Indian called her name in so frantic a shout that Erica turned back to face him. Her cheeks were still burning with shame, for she knew she had deserved that question about her virtue, since no respectable young woman would be tramping through the forest looking for a man who wore more feathers than clothes. That she was stiU a vfrgin through no fault of her own caused her an even more excruciating type of embarrassment.

"What is it now?" she demanded rudely.

The Indian was so thoroughly confused by the blond woman's hostility that he shouted right back at her. "You should not be walking alone so far from town."

"I'm not walking, I'm runningl" Erica pointed out, but as she turned back toward the trail he reached out to stop her.

BOOK: Tender savage
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