Seven and one-half years later
The Arkansas River Area
Spring had descended upon the land. The prairie was awash with the beauty of purple, blue, and yellow wildflowers while the scent of those same effusive blooms filled the air. The sun shone down, gentle and golden this day and its welcome warmth took away the slight chill in the morning air.
It was a perfect beginning to the day, a gorgeous day, whose beauty defied the somber mood of the few occupants who rested on this open stretch of prairie. Still, the young woman with dark brown hair and mysterious, hazel eyes smiled as she loosened her shawl and glanced around her.
Ah, the prairie in the spring. Was there any place on earth as beautiful?
Her gaze roved over the gently sloping hills straight to the horizon, where land met sky in splendid profusion of brilliant azure, spring green, and shades of golden brown. She reveled in the feel of the ever-present prairie wind which blew over her, ruffling her hair and her bonnet, the air warm and fresh upon her cheeks. Wisps of dark brown hair loosened from her coiffure to blow back against the yellow of her bonnet, but the young woman, with a delicate, pale complexion and pink, rosy lips didn't notice. Instead she raised her face to that breeze and inhaled deeply, enjoying, if only for a moment, the luscious beginnings to the day.
She hadn't noticed these past few weeks that the rains had brought such beauty to the prairie. But then, why should she? She'd been too busy, too intent with her work at the Colbys', with Mr. Colby's Indian wife, who had delivered twins, to pay much attention to her environment. But she did so now, and not even the sounds of the disgruntled men who followed behind, nor the unsavory scents of horseflesh and sweat could daunt her enthusiasm.
She glanced back at the company of soldiers, who sat upon their mounts in two neat rows behind her. Dragoons, they called them. Dragoons because during the Middle Ages, mounted soldiers had worn a dragon crest emblazoned on their helmets. Dragoons now because these men here fought their wars on horseback. There were about twenty men in this regiment of soldiers, all of them under the command of her husband, who, too, remained mounted, although the entire company sat stationary.
The young woman glanced at the sun and, noting its position, realized the company had been stalled here, along this lonesome stretch of prairie, for almost an hour, an hour during which they had all remained in the saddle, herself as well as the dragoons, munching on a breakfast of dried jerky and water.
"Why do you think we're not traveling on?" she asked, leaning down to whisper into her horse's ear. "Do you wish that I were off your back?"
Her gelding whinnied as though in reply, and the young woman reached down a hand to pat his neck. "Soon, boy, soon. I'm sure we'll be moving on soon. What I don't understand," she said, "is why we aren't making more progress toward the fort. Or if it is necessary that we stop, why aren't we dismounting?"
The horse shook his head, and the woman grinned, but only for a moment. She glanced over toward her husband and frowned. He sat gazing steadily about him, his look grim, daunting, while he listened to his second-in-command. She narrowed her eyes.
"Trouble." She hadn't known she'd spoken the word aloud until her gelding flickered his ears. "Yes," she said, her gaze still fixed on her husband. "There's bound to be some trouble before we reach the fort."
She pressed her lips together. No one had said anything to her. No one had to. She'd felt the agitation of the dragoons last night as though their distress were carried to her upon the wind. She'd heard the whispers, the rumors, even the muffled cursing of the men, and it had taken only a few inquires on her part to give her an idea of just why these men were moody, on guard, expectant.
"If they're attacked, it would only be what they deserved--if the rumors are true," she said her thoughts aloud, then shook her head. "When did I become so unsympathetic, boy?" she asked the horse as though the animal could give her an answer. "I used to understand these men. I used to understand their prejudice, I even used to agree with it. But that seems so long ago now. And fella"--she patted the horse's neck--"what am I to do? This is my husband's command; it's his men who may have committed these crimes. I'm supposed to support him...them, aren't I?"
The horse snorted while the young woman raised her chin, bringing her face full, into the wind: "It's just that I don't know what to do in this situation," she said, half to herself, half to her gelding. She bent down over the animal. "All of my experiences out here so far do not give me any sort of clear idea of what I should do. The only thing I can do," she continued, "is to hope that my husband remains, himself, innocent of the crimes that I suspect his men committed. Surely he would have tried to stop them, wouldn't he?"
The young, dark-haired woman raised her head and, in doing so, choked back a sigh, letting her gaze fall onto this man who was her husband. Her look was potent, as though by this simple action, she could see into his soul as well as endow the man with a strength of character he did not possess.
All at once, without her realizing it, a low moan sounded in her throat, the utterance of it similar to that of a wounded animal. She closed her eyes. She released her pent-up breath as she came face-to-face with a fact: If what she suspected were true, her husband could have restrained his men, and by doing so, could have prevented their present misfortune. But he hadn't. Why?
Was it because he, too, was guilty of the crimes?
She opened her eyes wide to gaze at the man who was her husband. Was it true, what she suspected? Had he participated in the crimes against the Indians? Surely not, and yet... Even if personally innocent, wasn't he guilty of the acts of his men by reason of his command?
She grimaced, and the horse beneath her shifted. She reached out a hand to pet the animal again, while she bent again over his head. She whispered, "What am I to do? Do you know, boy? That man is my husband. Am I not sworn to love and understand him despite the harsh bearings of life, despite his mistakes, despite mine? But, dear Lord, if he really did what I suspect...if the rumors are true, his men did more than make a simple mistake. If true, they have committed terrible acts, acts I cannot condone, no matter my marital state."
She remembered again the mission of these dragoons: a peaceful visit to the Kiowa, one of goodwill and friendship. Where had it gone so wrong?
She had accompanied this troop at the start of their journey, staying with them until they had reached the Colbys', where she had left them to help with Mr. Colby's Indian wife. She had only rejoined the dragoons yesterday.
She thought back to what she had observed about this troop of men, and, unwillingly, mental images came to mind that she would have rather forgotten: certain of the men laughing at the misfortune of the "hang around the fort Indians," throwing those Indians bits of food as though they were no more than animals, antagonizing their leaders with cursing, with degradation of their women, their young girls. And she knew without doubt that these men were not only capable of the rumored crimes, that by the actions of her husband now, these crimes were most likely a reality.
She sat back up in her seat, pondering her predicament. There was danger here, and perhaps deserved danger.
And she knew that it was their plight now that bothered her husband, not remorse, and certainly not the actions of his men.
Unbidden, she heard his voice from out of the past, speaking to her as though that time were now: "The red man is a savage, an animal of prey," he'd said to her. "And like an animal, a bear or a cougar, we must kill him where we find him. If we don't, the godless creatures will soon murder us all. Remember this. The red man is a parasite and the sooner he is wiped off the earth, the better for us all."
The young woman lifted her gaze to the heavens above her, staring at the light blue of the cloudless sky while she attempted to clear her thoughts. A pair of eagles chose that moment to fly overhead, causing the young woman to remember another time, another place, when someone from out of her past had told her a story of the eagle--a bold, adventurous tale. For just a single instant of time she experienced again the feelings she'd had then, the sense of being excited by the fullness of life around her, the affinity life holds for life, an appreciation for all living things, shown to her by someone she had respected...an Indian.
And she knew that despite what her husband said, despite the commonly held attitudes within the fort, she didn't believe. She did not agree.
She shivered, though the sun encompassed and enshrouded her with glowing warmth. She had to stop thinking of these things, of the Indians she had known so long ago. If she didn't, the conflict in the cultures would confuse her.
She moved in the saddle, the action uncomfortable as her bladder responded to the motion, reminding her she had not yet seen to her body's needs since arising. She would have to do something about it; she would need a moment of privacy...quite soon.
She cast an uncertain glance at her husband, trying to determine what his response would be if she were to ask him to accompany her to a private spot. Although maybe she should not bother him. Perhaps she should just move out away from the line of men and relieve her natural callings discreetly, if that were possible in this land without a single tree for protection.
She grimaced. No, she would have to ask her husband to accompany her.
She closed her eyes for a moment and swallowed hard. "What do you think I should say, boy?" she asked of her gelding again. "How can I ask my husband to help me when, by coming in close to him, I'll provide a target for his frustration? And though I know he may not be mad at me, I know he'll take his anger out on me."
Her gelding didn't answer and the young woman, shaking her head, gulped down a breath.
She lifted her head. Whatever her fears, it mattered little. Her needs, it would appear, could not wait. She gathered her courage and, urging her gelding forward, focused her gaze on his horse until at last, coming abreast of his mount, the young woman flicked her eyelashes up, a quick smile accompanying the motion; and she looked at Kenneth Wilson, her husband.
That his red, angry glance met her submissive one should have cautioned her to silence. In truth, it did...slightly. But her need was great.
So she gave him her best grin, then, before courage deserted her completely, she asked him what she must, her voice quiet and gentle against the wind. She stared at him and awaited her husband's reply.
"Damnation, Julia!" Lieutenant Kenneth Wilson jerked his hat off his head and slapped it against his thigh. He glared at her. "Can't you wait even a moment? Why now and why must I be the one to accompany you? Why do you do these things to me? I wish I'd known what trouble you were going to be to me."
Julia stared into the harsh countenance of her husband's face, the man she had married almost five years ago, a man she barely knew today. That he looked more like a child at this moment, his face red and gaunt, did not bode well for her.
She knew it. She shouldn't have asked him to accompany her. She'd seen his frustration, had realized that if she approached him, he would vent his anger on her. She provided too easy a target for him.
The enemy was not here to fight; she was.
She cleared her throat then in a steady voice said, "It's a simple request, Kenneth. It won't take me long."
He gave her a stormy look before answering, almost shouting, "I should have left you with the Colbys and let you find your own way back to the fort." When she visibly flinched, he moved forward in his seat, as though closing in for the kill. "Get out of here," he sneered, his voice raised. "Go on--get--if you have to go!"
Julia turned her head away while Lieutenant Kenneth Wilson's sunburned face turned even redder under the few censorious stares from his men.
"Damn!" he swore again, and Julia saw him smash his hat back on his head. He grabbed the reins of her mount and with a quick order to his next in command, he galloped away, Julia's gelding having no choice but to follow. He set a pace much too fast for a lady as he led them toward a small rise in the landscape, and Julia held back the retort she might have said had she not wanted to avoid further wrath.
She satisfied herself with a censorious glare instead.
"What?" he asked as they reached the crest of the hill. "Give me another look like that, and I'll make you wish you hadn't."
Julia's response was only a cool regard, though she felt like flashing back with an equally damaging remark. Stoically, she held her own counsel.
Kenneth had dismounted, she noted, though with his arms over his chest, she realized he had no intention of assisting her.
He sneered. "Well," he said. "Get down. And hurry. I have no time for you. You, who should not even be out here. I don't know what possessed you to visit the Colbys. My God, the Colby woman is Injun. Should have let her and the red-skinned kids die."
Julia gasped, though she said nothing. She supposed she should be used to Kenneth's viewpoint concerning the Indians, but she wasn't. Every time he insinuated that the Indians were somehow less than people, she cringed. But she no longer argued with him, learning long ago that arguments led too often to verbal and sometimes physical abuse.
So she took a deep breath, the action somehow endowing her with a strength of will, a strength she would need in order to ride out Kenneth's verbal attack without feeling the need to retaliate.
She supposed she should dismount, but somehow her seating upon her mount, while Kenneth stood on the ground, gave her a slight advantage she would rather not lose, not when Kenneth was in one of these moods.
That he leered at her, voicing the word "Bitch," shouldn't have affected her. But it did.
She raised her head. "I wish you wouldn't call me that," she said, squaring her shoulders. Though she knew she shouldn't, she couldn't help continuing on, saying, "The Colbys needed me. And, Kenneth, don't you remember that we had agreed on this before we left the fort a few weeks ago? You knew then what I was doing, and you had even agreed to bring your troops to the Colbys after your assignment was done at the Kiowa camp. It was you who offered to escort me back to the fort. You said even then..."
"Don't patronize me! Do you think I don't remember what I said? I have an excellent memory. I don't need to be told these things again and again and...don't raise your voice to me!"
"I am not--"
"You are, Julia. You are. And stop your constant prattle. You just talk and talk and talk. You smother me with talk. Well, I'm sick of it. I'm sick of your constant chatter, and I'm sick of you."
This last was said with so much venom that Julia was reminded for a moment just how much her husband's poisonous tongue could hurt, a fact she rarely forgot.
What had happened to the man she had married five years ago? She tried to conjure up images of that man: a man given to humor, to duty, a man who had appeared to desire her above all else. And she wondered with a deep sense of regret if this man she had known, this man she had married, had been all mirage, wooing her into believing he was something he was not.
Or was the fault partially hers? Should she have known he had another side to him? She had seen his prejudice, his cruelty on a few occasions before their marriage, but she had never dreamed he might turn that cruelty on her.
Julia debated for a moment as to whether she should raise another defense for herself, although, in truth, she knew it would do her no good. She sighed. This same scene was an all-too-common occurrence of late, and she wondered, not for the first time, if she would ever be able to live with Kenneth without a battle, both verbal and physical. Briefly she shut her eyes, wishing, if only for a moment, that it could be different.
She shivered and, opening her eyes, stared at Kenneth. That he turned on her, that he scoffed, that he cursed at her yet again, shouldn't bother her.
But Lord help her, it did.
Deciding no good would come from further argument, Julia dismounted without help and, taking the reins of her gelding from Kenneth, she began to lead the animal up and over the slight rise in the hill.
Once there, out of the eyes of the men, of her husband, and using the horse as a sort of shield, she attended to her needs.
It took only a moment, but Julia hesitated before returning to where her husband waited for her. She sensed he was not yet finished with her and she wished to delay the moment of confrontation as long as possible.
Finally, several minutes having gone by, she knew she would have to return. Sighing, she gathered up the reins of her horse and, turning the gelding around, proceeded back up the rise the same way she had gone down.
He waited for her, her husband, his mood not at all improved, and for want of anything else to do, Julia gave him a quick smile. In truth, her grin was often her only means of defense against her husband's ill humor.
"Are you done at last? Now hurry," he ordered her. "I have no time for this, for you. There's trouble for my troops, and you are in my way. Now, mount up."
Julia nodded, although she hesitated. "Kenneth, I need a hand."
He groaned, but he came toward her all the same. "You know, this is all your fault. If we hadn't had to come back and pick you up at the Colbys', we would already be back at the fort. I hope you see what trouble you are."
Julia raised her brows. It was her only reaction to his accusation. Though she knew he might believe a part of his tirade, she also realized he baited her. Their predicament had little to do with her. She had heard the men talking, heard the rumors of what had happened in the Kiowa camp; she had asked questions. And it would appear that Kenneth's inability to control his men's baser appetites had borne so much ill will in the Indian camp that most feared the Kiowa might follow them now...seeking revenge for what could only be termed the rape of the Indian women. It was this that most likely disturbed Kenneth's peace of mind--not Julia.
"What?" Kenneth folded his hands over his chest, as he halted, poised, ready for a fight. He pursed his lips, and when Julia further delayed speaking, he continued, "And what does my too-sweet wife have to say? And don't tell me it's nothing. I know you too well."
Julia sighed, attempting to keep her gaze cool, assessing. Truly, she wished to say nothing. At this moment, anything she uttered would only serve to further enrage him.
Keeping her hands firmly wrapped around the reins of her horse, she took a deep breath and began, "Kenneth, I think the trouble does not lie with me, but with your own men and their violation of the Kiowa women. You were supposed to be on a peaceful mission in the Indian camp. You were supposed to do nothing but create goodwill toward the military, toward the pioneers who travel through their country. How could you have allowed your men to treat the Kiowa women in so degrading a fashion?"
She saw him flinch, saw his face redden even further. "What do you know of it?" he hissed at her. "You, with your great knowledge of military intelligence?"
Julia merely lifted an eyebrow, and though it mocked him, she could not help herself. "And what sort of intelligence does it take, Kenneth, to know that with the safety of Fort Leavenworth several days' ride away, one does not anger one's hosts in such a way?"
"You weren't there. How could you know how those women baited my men? The women begged for it, I tell you. Why the savages even seemed glad we had done it. Probably couldn't..."
His voice trailed off, but Julia barely heard any more, her attention centered on one thing only. We, he'd said. We?
Julia carefully schooled her features into revealing nothing. Not her outrage at his logic, nor his justification of what his men, and possibly what he himself, had done.
We? Julia swallowed hard.
What could she say? Chastisement would accomplish nothing, would only serve to enrage him further. But deep inside, Julia died a little. We? She licked her lips. It was her only reaction. Slowly, so as not to draw attention to herself, she looked to the ground.
"Well," he prodded, "have you nothing to say to that?"
She hesitated. She kept her eyes focused on her skirts, until at last she muttered, "I say there isn't a woman alive who 'begs' for it."
He gritted his teeth in response to her; he glared at her as though she had shouted at him and then, without so much as a further pause, he growled, "What would you know about it?"
"More than you, it would seem," she murmured, her head down.
Silence. Utter, deadening silence, until at last, with a hiss, he snarled at her, "Stay away from me, Julia. From here on forward you are nothing to me. Nothing to anyone." His lips twisted into a sneer, he spit out, "I know you for what you are now, Julia. And I don't like what I see. You're a bitch, Julia. A goddamned bitch."
Julia didn't utter a word. Stunned, shocked at herself with her back talk, and at Kenneth with his ill-chosen words, Julia, her dark hair blowing forward into her face, merely looked away.
It was some moments before she was able to regain her composure--enough to turn, to gather up her horse's reins, and begin her long, solitary trek back down the "rise."
She didn't look back. She didn't see her husband's red, angry face, and, in truth, it was better that way.
The gunshot came as a surprise.
Julia's head came up in an instant. Kenneth ran to her side. Together both man and woman stared out at the company of soldiers, the dragoons, who strove to assemble themselves while under the onslaught of attack. Dust clouded the field, making it impossible for either one to get a clear view of the action. The high-pitched war whoops, the whiz of arrows, the screams, the cursing, the orders to arms, to formation, told the tale.
More gunshots, more arrows, the squeals of the horses, the stench of raw flesh and sweat permeated the air. Still Julia and Kenneth stood transfixed, unable to move, to breathe.
The Indians clearly outnumbered the cavalry by two to one, and it was obvious that no white man would survive this attack. It was what the dragoons had feared, what they had expected, yet for all that, it came as a surprise to all of them.
It occurred to Julia that her husband, the superior officer, should be running back to his men to aid and assist them, but it was no more than a passing thought as Julia watched with horror the cloud of dust in the distance.
Their horses whinnied behind them, but Julia barely registered the sound until all at once, Kenneth pulled away from her, jumping onto his own mount. He might have helped her onto her horse. He didn't.
He might have encouraged her to do whatever it was he was going to do. He didn't.
He reined in his steed and Julia, reading his thoughts, knowing that he meant to flee in the opposite direction from the fight, felt her heart sink.
He means to leave me.
The knowledge hit her with the strength of an arrow. He said nothing to her, he did nothing, not even inclining his head, until, with a click of his heel to his mount, he turned and shot over the rise.
"Kenneth?" she called, her voice no louder than a whisper, then, "Kenneth, come back here!"
She spurred herself into action and, trying to run, she stumbled after him. "Kenneth, where are you...?"
War whoops interrupted her. Julia froze.
More war whoops resounded around her. Julia spun around, screaming at the same time. A single warrior descended upon her.
She thought of running. She didn't. She couldn't move. Besides, it would do no good, and she knew it.
So she stood, fear gripping her, although the emotion became buried as she felt as if she were moving away from her body. It was an odd sensation, she was to think later, for she found herself contemplating the warrior as though from afar, as though none of this were happening to her.
It did occur to her once that she should feel something, yet as she stared at the Indian, nothing stirred within her, and she found herself studying the man, his body paint and his horsemanship, as an artist might, noting that white paint covered the warrior's face, neck, and chest, while black slashes jetted out under his eyes and along his cheekbones. Feathers dangled from his hair, above his crown, and also from his spear, which he held in his hand...pointed at her. He screamed as he raced toward her, his war cry carrying on the wind, and Julia, silently admiring the man's cleverness with his mount, watched, hypnotized, waiting for the death blow.
Closer and closer he sped, the sound of his approach deafening, until she thought she could see the color of his eyes, the yellow of his teeth. Knowing she could do nothing, she watched, she waited as though her body did not belong to her.
She noted the magnificent sight the warrior made, her own horse whinnying and stomping behind her, tugging on the reins she still clutched in her hands. Dust clogged her nostrils, stinging her eyes, stopping up the pores of her skin, finding its way into her system until she thought she might taste the dirt, and the warrior, ever closer, sprinted his pony right up to her, screaming. But at the last moment, he leaped on by her without more than a momentary pause, his spear coming a few scant inches from her face.
He hollered as he burst past her, and minutes later Julia heard the scream; a scream of horror, a masculine scream.
She almost swooned, but something held her upright, some emotion that would not let her fall.
She heard the sounds of spear meeting flesh, of more crying, and then a horse blazed back toward her. She felt the jerk of motion as someone grabbed her around the waist, her hands twisting in the still-held reins of her own mount.
She felt hot, sweaty flesh next to her own.
She felt the man's pony burst to full speed, saw the bloody scalp of brown hair he brandished in his hand: Kenneth's.
She closed her eyes, saying a silent prayer for a man she had never truly been able to love.
She began to cry, but the wind whipped the moisture off her skin, giving her the appearance of nonchalance; a look which, had she but known it, made her appear ethereal.
Her Indian captor gazed at her, his look expressing a sort of awe, but she turned away from him, feeling nausea building within her.
It didn't take long; within seconds, Julia convulsed over and over, losing her meager breakfast onto the ground until, at last, her stomach would heave no more.
She would never see Kenneth again. Not in this world.
She began to cry again, but the tears, she found, wouldn't come. Instead a sort of numbness filled her.
Perhaps it was that which gave her the appearance of strength; perhaps it was something else. Whatever the cause, Julia, raising her chin and, feeling her hair blowing back with the wind, little knew that her attitude lit a spark of admiration within her captor--an esteem that could win her guardianship or perhaps bring her terror.
Thankfully she was saved from this knowledge. For the moment, her insouciance became her saving grace, and she held on to it. It was, notwithstanding, all that she had.