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Authors: Phoebe Conn

Tags: #Indian captivities, #Dakota Indians

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BOOK: Tender savage
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"Go away," the distraught youth responded, his voice muffled by his feather pillow.

Since she couldn't allow him to sulk until his parents became suspicious as to the cause of his downcast mood. Erica moved closer to his bed and continued. "I know full well that respectable young women do not kiss Indian braves. I suppose they do not even know such men. I chanced to meet that fellow in the woods. He helped me to find something I'd lost and asked me to kiss him as a reward. I should have refused. I know that, but since I'll never see him again I plan to forget about that scene you witnessed this afternoon, and I hope you will, too."

Gunter was both embarrassed and ashamed. He was also appalled that he had run off like some witless child rather than ask his beautiful cousin just what the hell she was doing when he had seen her in an Indian's arms. Turning to face her, he sat up and hoped he would sound more like a man now. "If you had lost something, why didn't you ask me to help you find it?"

Since she had not even considered that possibility. Erica swiftly apologized. "That is precisely what I should have •done, Gunter. I'm very sorry that I didn't do it, too. It's just that I'm used to walking down by the Brandy wine Creek near my home where everyone goes for an afternoon stroll. I will try harder to remember this is the edge of the frontier and I shouldn't go wandering about alone."

Gunter's mother had underestimated her son's devotion to Erica. He was not merely smitten with her, he adored her. "I did not want to believe you preferred red men to white," he admitted shyly.

The Indian had been a handsome devil and his kiss a delight, but Erica was not about to reveal to Gunter that she had found scant difference between him and Mark. Instead, she smiled warmly at Gunter and assured him he need have no such worries. "This must remain our secret, Gunter, you understand that, don't you? Why the gossip about me would never cease if you told anyone what you

saw. You haven't told anyone, have you?"

"Oh nol" the astonished youth exclaimed. "I will never tell that story. I swear it."

"Good. I brought your sack of wood home. Don't forget you promised to carve me a cougar," Erica reminded him as she moved toward the door.

"No, I promised merely to try," Gunter called out, his spirits soaring now that he had learned she and the Indian weren't lovers, no matter what his eyes had told him.

"All right, you promised to try." Erica gave him a charming smile as she left his room, but she did not draw a deep breath until she had locked her door behind her. She sat down at her desk and reread Mark's letter several times, still hoping to discover some hidden admission that he regretted not marrying her. Since there was no such message she soon found her mind wandering to thoughts of the Indian. She took his claw from her podcet, and after tying it upon a red ribbon to make it look less fearsome, she hid it in the bottom of her stationery box. She then attempted to comp)ose a coherent reply to Mark, but she found the dashing Indian brave's stirring kiss surprisingly difficult to forget.

An amused smile played across the Indian's lips as he began the trek home. That he had taken a lock ot Erica's pale blond hair would provide proof for his friends that he had kissed her. As he followed the river upstream, he rehearsed increasingly lurid versions of the tale, beginning with the instant he had discovered her spying upon him and ending with their kiss.

He had gotten so late a start, when darkness fell he was forced again to make camp for the night. His dreams were filled with the sad sweetness of Erica's parting smile, and he awoke with her image still fresh in his mind. By the time he arrived home the next morning, he found for soine curious reason that while he had an intriguing romantic adventure to relate, he had no desire to share it. It wasn't like him to be so close-mouthed about his travels, but he described only the number of fish he had caught and how few animals he had seen, and his friends did not guess he had begun keeping secrets from them.

Two Elk scxjwled angrily as Viper sjDoke. "We no longer have good lands for hunting. The white men have taken them all. Now we must wait for them to give us money and food or we will starve. The trader Myrick will give us no more credit at his store. He says we can eat grass while he grows fat on the money we have paid him!"

"Were the annuity goods distributed or the gold we're owed paid while I was gone?" Viper asked with a skeptically raised brow. That question was met with bitterly voiced obscenities from his friends. He liked no better than they that the once proud San tee Sioux now had to depend for their livelihood upon the very white men who had stolen their land through unfair treaties. "I thought not. What news is there of the war?"

Two Elk lowered his voice and the small crowd that had surrounded Viper upon his return drew closer still. "When the Union Army is coming here to ask us to fight, it is plain the South is beating them badly."

"A promise of a full belly is not enough to make me want to fight for them," a young man called Growling Bear sneered.

"If the North loses the war, then we will never see our moneyl" Two Elk complained bitterly.

Squatting down in the dirt, the friends all wore similar expressions of disgust. Finally Hunted Stag spoke. "If the South wins, will they come here to make slaves of us?"

Viper laughed out loud at that question. "Not when they see what poor farmers we arel"

"You should not laugh!" Growling Bear scolded. "We have been shoved onto land where we cannot survive on our own. If the South wins, then even that may be taken from us!"

Taken aback by that warning. Viper's mood grew just as dark. "All right then, the choice is clear. We can join the Union Army and fight for a government which breaks all its promises and leaves us to starve, or we can wait and fight the South for the right to survive on whatever lands we choose!"

The air thick with tension. Two Elk offered still another opinion. "With so many white men gone from Minnesota to fight the war, we could drive out the rest if we struck now! Why have we no leader with the courage to do so?"

"This is the kind of talk we should do elsewhere," Viper warned as he rose to his feet. Like mamy men of his tribe, he was slightly over six feet in height and stood proudly. That a discussion of his travels had swifdy become a war council did not surprise him, for there was not a man among them who had any respect for the government of the United States. The chiefs had been wrong to give up their lands for promises of food and money, and he thought as his friends did that their situation had gotten so bad that not even war could make it worse.

As he turned away he saw Hunted Stag's sister. Song of the Wren, standing nearby. She was supposed to be minding her little sister, but clearly she had been watching him instead. Like all Sioux maidens she would not approach a brave who interested her, but the boldness of her glance held an unmistakable invitation. She was a pretty girl with large brown eyes, flowing black hair, and a shapely figure, but Viper had not courted her nor any of her friends. They were all pretty and sweet, but none had ever stirred his blood to the point where he wanted to make her his wife. He gave Wren no more than a slight nod as he walked away.

Wren was so disgusted that she had again failed to impress Viper favorably that she reached tor her sister's hand with a rude yank. The little girl gave a yelp of pain, which Wren quickly hushed. Her brother would tell her where the handsome brave had been. Since she had not seen his friends teasing him, she knew Viper had not been visiting a woman in another camp. But that thought did nothing to raise her spirits. She was a very popular girl. Many braves came to her tepee in the evenings, but that Viper was not one of them filled her with a disappointment so deep it was swiftly becoming a black rage. It was dme she took a husband, and no man but Viper would dol Dragging her whimpering sister along behind her, she returned to her family's tepee to ask her mother's advice in winning the heart of a reluctant brave.

Though seething with discontent, the Lower Agency to which Viper had returned would have appeared to the casual observer to be a peaceful encampment of tepees nestled between bluffs of the Minnesota River Valley. Overlooking the Indian camp stood a settlement of traders' stores, quarters for the Indian agent and other

government personnel, along with shops, bams, and several other building, including a new^ly constructed stone warehouse. While the Sioux did not consider the feelings of the whites, the traders were as anxious as they were for the Indians' gold to arrive, since they had long passed the point at which they could op)erate on credit. Therefore, the summer of 1862 found no one at the Lower Agency happy.

Viper managed to remain home for one week before his spirit grew too restless to remain where every word spoken was a complaint. To the north lay the Upper Agency, which occupied far better lands for hunting. But he had no wish to trespass ufx^n them. No, his interest lay toward the south, and without providing an explanation of his plans, he again slipped away before dawn so none of his friends could beg to join him or follow. .

A loner by nature, he was comfortable in his own company, but when he reached the woods outside New Ulm he knew if he wished to see Erica again he would have to find a way to let her know he had kept his promise to return. Since he knew she worked in her uncle's store in the mornings, he decided to wait outside at noon and speak with her when she left. He had no plans for a lengthy conversation, but hoped all he need do was make her aware of his presence and she would know what to do next.

Viper's presence caused considerable stares, but since he was breaking no laws by standing outside Ludwig's Dry Goods, he returned the curious glances directed his way with a practiced nonchalance. His timing proved to be perfect. He had to wait only a few minutes before Erica came out the front door of the heavily trafficked store, but to his dismay she was not alone. Walking with her was a big man Viper thought to be several years older than he, but they went by him so quickly he scarcely caught Erica's eye. Disappointed not to have at least won a smile from the blonde, he returned to his camp by the river and sat down to fish while he waited impatiently for the arrival of the pretty young woman he could not be certain would appear.

When she saw the Indian lounging outside the store, Erica's heart leaped to her throat, lodging there so firmly

she could barely nod to show she was listening as Ernst described his hop>es for a successful harvest. Her uncle had again invited him to eat dinner with them. While Erica had done nothing to encourage his admiration of her, Ernst's perseverance where she was concerned was leading her to think she should come right out and tell him she would never consider a proposal from him rather than politely to suffer his continued attentions. In fact, she began to hope he would mention marriage that very afternoon so she could refuse him and send him on his way.

The Indian's sudden appearance complicated her life considerably. Although she had gotten only a quick glimpse of him, it was enough to assure her he was every bit as handsome as she had recalled. Her whole body tingled with excitement at the thought of continuing their forbidden friendship. She had not really expected hirn to come back, or at least not so soon. She knew without being told where she could find him. The question was: did she truly wish to?

She struggled to make polite responses to Ernst as they ate dinner. Her mood was anxious, for she felt hopelessly trapped. The poor man tried so hard to impress her, but not only were his looks plain, but his personality and thoughts as well. He had none of her uncle's fun-loving charm, and while he was a solid, dependable citizen, Erica truly did not want ever to see him again. When finally he left the house and her uncle returned to the store, she felt far too tired to face a possible confrontation with an amorous Indian.

Britta studied Erica's pained expression throughout the noon meal and feared she was at fault for her niece's obvious discomfort. She hadn't repeated the beautiful young woman's comments about Ernst to her husband, and Karl apparently wasn't observant enough to notice Erica wasn't nearly so fond of the young man as he was. As soon as they were alone, she made what she thought was a considerate suggestion. "You look tired, dear. Why don't you go on out for a walk? You've been spjending too much time either at the store or indoors here. Go on out, it will put some color back into your cheeks."

The thought of a walk was very attractive, but Erica feared her feet would carry her straight to the Indian and

then leave her mind with nothing to say. "I like spending the afternoons helping you, Britta," she argued. "You remind me so much oT my mother, being around you is almost like being with her again."

"What a sweet thing to say. Erica. But Eva was much prettier than I am. Now I insist you go out for a little while at least, since the afternoon is a fine one."

Finally pushed out the door by her well-meaning aunt, Erica dawdled along the path leading down to the river. Once she reached the steamboat landing the hesitated a lon^ while before realizing that if she did not go see the Indian, he would probably wait for her outside the store again the next day and the next until she did venture out to the woods to meet him. By that time the whole town would be gossiping about the man and she would be fortunate 'if her name were not included in the same breath. Justifying her actions to herself in this way and convincing herself she was, more eager to avoid drawing such unwarranted attention to their friendship than to continue it. Erica finally chose the path leading north and found the Indian fishing in the exact spot where she had first seen him.

Viper wound his line around a branch that jutted out over the river and rose to greet Erica when she waved to him. He had told himself repeatedly that she could not p>ossibly be the beauty his memory had stubbornly insisted she was, but as she smiled shyly at him he realized he had been wrong. She was even more lovely than he had recalled. Hct fair curls shone brightly, reflecting the sun's rays like a halo. The angels in the missionary's books had always been blond, pale, pretty creatures he had instantly disliked because they looked nothing like his dark-skinned friends and relatives. Yet here Erica was, looking like a living ray of sunshine, and he could find nothing to dislike about her.

BOOK: Tender savage
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