Beautiful and hot-headed, Caitlyn had vowed to hate all Indians until the day she died. After all, weren't they the ones responsible for the senseless massacre of her beloved brothers? But when she gazed into the defiant eyes of the half-breed her father was planning to hang, she knew she couldn’t let an innocent man die.
She wanted to scorn Stalking Wolf as the other townsfolk did, but his proud bearing won her respect and his hard body drew her like a moth to the flame. In his bronzed arms, she would forget her vow of hatred, forget propriety, forget everything but his searing kisses and the burning ecstasy of forbidden fires….
He had not cried since he was a small child, and he did not weep now. Stone-faced, he stood before the council elders while they decided his fate. Stone-faced, he accepted their decision. Banishment.
It had been inevitable and it was final.
Wordlessly, he left the council lodge and returned to his father’s tipi. The eyes of the People followed him as he walked through the village. Their faces were sympathetic but they did not speak to him. Banishment was like death, and the dead were to be avoided.
The words of the council elders echoed in his head as he made his way to his father’s lodge. “The warrior known as Stalking Wolf is no longer of the blood, no longer of the blood…”
His little sister. Yellow Flower, wept softly as he told of the council’s decision. His stepmother, Tall Grass Woman, stood mute, the sorrow on her face more eloquent than words, more expressive than tears.
Too soon, it was time to go. He would be allowed to take nothing with him save the clothes on his back. No horse to make his journey easier, no food to sustain him, no weapons for protection against enemies.
He embraced his stepmother, hugged his little sister one last time, and stepped outside. Overhead, the sky was blue and breathtakingly clear. The vast Lakota horse herd grazed in the distance, a riot of grays, blacks, and browns against a sea of lush green buffalo grass.
He stood beside his father’s lodge for a long moment, his dark eyes sweeping over the village. Each lodge stood in its appointed place in the camp circle, their doorways all facing east. Wooden drying racks stood in the sun, weighed down with long strips of buffalo and venison. The familiar smells of roasting meat, sage, and tobacco filled his nostrils; the shrieks and laughter of carefree children at play reached his ears.
He waited a moment more, wondering at his father’s absence. Was Killian Gallegher so ashamed of his only son that he would not even come forward to say farewell?
His face impassive, Stalking Wolf squared his shoulders and walked swiftly toward the forest that rose beyond the rear of the village. He could feel the eyes of the People on his back and he lengthened his stride, anxious to reach the cover of the woods.
He had known, somehow, that Summer Wind would be there, though he wondered how she dared face him. She stood in the shadow of the giant pine tree where they had so often met in the past. She was a vision of loveliness in an ivory doeskin tunic and beaded moccasins. Her shiny black hair fell over her shoulders in two long braids. There were tears in her voice as she called his name.
Stalking Wolf came to an abrupt halt, his placid expression masking his turbulent emotions.
They faced each other, the events of the past two days rising like an invisible barrier between them.
“Do you hate me now?” Summer Wind asked.
“Where will you go?”
Stalking Wolf shrugged. Where would he go?
“I am sorry, Stalking Wolf,” she murmured contritely. “I did not think it would end this way.”
“Didn’t you?” His anger shattered his cool facade, and Summer Wind took a step backward, frightened by the rage glittering in his deep-set black eyes.
“I am sorry,” she repeated. “Please forgive me.”
“Tell Hump Back Bear of your sorrow,” Stalking Wolf retorted coldly. “When he hears you, I will hear you.”
Shame flooded Summer Wind’s cheeks with color. Bowing her head to hide her tears, she hurried back toward the village.
Stalking Wolf stared after her for several minutes. He had loved her, he thought bitterly, and it had cost him dearly. Hump Back Bear was dead because Summer Wind had played them both false, and now his home and family were lost to him. Never, he vowed, never again would he trust a woman.
Heavy-hearted, he followed the narrow deer trail that cut through the heart of the forest and emerged on the vast grassy plains that stretched westward as far as the eye could see.
He had gone about two miles when a deep male voice called out to him.
Stalking Wolf whirled around, his heart lifting as he saw Killian riding toward him. He felt a surge of pride as his father drew near, reining his big black mare to a rearing halt. Killian Gallegher was a handsome man, still strong and fit despite his fifty-odd years. Tall and broad, with wavy brown hair and dark brown eyes, his skin was a deep bronze, the result of spending the last six years living under the harsh Dakota sun.
Killian smiled as he saw the relief in his son’s eyes. “You didna think I would let ye go without saying goodbye?” he chided gently.
“I wouldn’t have blamed you,” Stalking Wolf replied. “I have shamed our family.”
“Ye’ve not shamed me, nor Tall Grass Woman,” Killian protested as he slid from the back of his horse. “‘Tis proud of ye I’ve always been, and ye’ve done naught to change me mind.”
Stalking Wolf nodded, touched by his father’s words.
The two men stood quietly close for several moments, knowing these few minutes were the last they would share.
“Where will ye go, laddie?” Killian asked after a while.
“I don’t know. West, perhaps.”
“Aye. Maybe ye’ll be the one who strikes it rich in the California gold fields.”
Stalking Wolf shook his head. “It was the father who dreamed of riches, not the son.”
“‘Tis true,” Killian admitted with a wry grin, “but a little hard cash is nothing to be turning your nose up at, and don’t you be forgetting it.”
“I’ll remember, as I’ve remembered everything you ever taught me.”
Killian smiled his winning grin. “I’m not so sure I ever taught ye anything an honest man should be knowin’.”
“You mean cheating at cards, sleeping late, and a fondness for fine Kentucky bourbon are not the pursuits of a fine gentleman?”
Killian punched his son on the arm affectionately. “‘Tis exactly what I mean, laddie, although the first may come in handy if ye have trouble finding a respectable job.” Killian’s expression grew serious and the merriment left his eyes. “I’ll miss ye, laddie.” He stared past his son, his dark eyes thoughtful. “I never gave much thought to what life would be like for ye when I married your ma. Perhaps I shouldna wed her and got her with child, but I loved her, laddie, more than ye can imagine. She was such a gentle thing, so bonny and soft spoken. And when she looked at me, I saw the whole world in her eyes.”
Stalking Wolf said nothing. He had never known his mother. She had died of a fever a few months after his birth. Following her death, Killian had hired a woman to care for Stalking Wolf while Killian drank himself into oblivion each night, trying to forget the beautiful young Cherokee girl who had run away from her family to marry a poor Irishman, only to die before she had ever really lived.
Stalking Wolf’s first memory of his father was of finding him lying dead drunk on the doorstep. He had been frightened of his father then, frightened and ashamed. He remembered how lonely he had been as a child. Other children weren’t allowed to play with him because he was a half-breed and his father was a drunkard. He had not learned what a half-breed was until later.
It wasn’t until the housekeeper quit and Killian found himself in full charge of his son that the two got to know each other. Killian sobered up when he realized how much his son needed him. He sold their house in Georgia and moved to New Orleans where he returned to the trade he knew best, gambling.
As Stalking Wolf grew older, Killian taught his son the things his own father had taught him, how to play poker and monte and faro—and how to cheat at poker and monte and faro. He also taught Stalking Wolf how to detect the signals that meant someone else was cheating at cards, and, most importantly, how to defend himself with his bare fists or a knife. Killian instilled in his son a love of fine whiskey, a taste for expensive, imported cigars, and an appreciation for beautiful women, be they ladies of unblemished virtue or back-street tarts.
When Stalking Wolf was almost twenty, they had to leave New Orleans because Killian had killed a man over a card game. Fleeing with only the clothes on their backs, they headed for California where it was rumored that pure gold lined the streets and nuggets the size of a man’s fist waited in the rivers.
Along the way, they had encountered a trader who sold Indian women to any man who could pay the price. Killian had taken one look at Tall Grass Woman and been smitten. Not having the money to buy her, he made off with her in the dead of night and then, to appease her tears, he had offered to return her to her people. Her father, overjoyed at the return of his only daughter, had given a feast in honor of the two white men who had rescued his daughter and, in the course of the evening, Killian and Stalking Wolf had been adopted into the tribe. They were given their own lodge and encouraged to spend the coming winter with the tribe.
Killian and Stalking Wolf had been fascinated by the Indians and they had readily embraced the Lakota lifestyle. Before that first year was out, Killian married Tall Grass Woman. Yellow Flower had been born the following summer, and Stalking Wolf had become a Lakota warrior.
It hadn’t been easy. Stalking Wolf had had o learn to hunt and fight, Sioux-style, to use a bow and arrow, and to throw a lance. He learned to read the signs of the seasons, to track a man, or a buffalo. He gave up trousers for fringed buckskin leggings, discarded his boots for moccasins, and let his hair grow long. He felt at home among the Lakota. The ancient warrior songs stirred his blood, whispering to him of old battles, old victories. He went to war against the Pawnee and the Crow, and hunted the deer and the elk. And in the autumn of his twenty-sixth year, he fell in love with a beautiful young maiden whose smile was as soft as dandelion down Summer Wind…
Killian chuckled softly, bringing Stalking Wolf back to the present. “I seem to have a weakness for Indian women,” he mused. “First your mother, and now Tall Grass Woman.” Killian sighed heavily. “It willna be easy for ye, out there among the whites.”
Stalking Wolf laughed a soft, bitter laugh. It had never been easy.
“Take care of yourself, laddie. There’s many a man, and many a woman, too, who’ll shun ye because of your mixed blood.” Killian laid a hand on his son’s arm and gave it a squeeze. “May all the gods, red and white, go with ye.”
“And with you,” Stalking Wolf replied. “Take good care of my stepmother and my sister.”
“Ye can count on it.”
The two men stood together, reluctant to part, then Killian wrapped his arms around his son and hugged him, hard. “I love ye, laddie. Never forget that.”
Stalking Wolf nodded, unable to speak past the lump in his throat.
When they parted, there were tears glistening in the older man’s eyes. “Here,” he said, thrusting his horse’s reins into his son’s hands. “Take the mare. She’ll see ye safely on your journey.”
“You shouldn’t help me,” Stalking Wolf said quietly.
“Not help me own son! Are ye daft? Go on, take her.”
The two men embraced one last time, and then Stalking Wolf vaulted onto the mare’s back. Black Wind was taller than any of the Lakota ponies. She had a long muscular neck, a deep chest, and wide-set intelligent eyes. And she was fast. Unbelievably fast. She was not a mustang, but a thoroughbred mare Killian had captured in a raid against a white settlement the year before.
“My thanks, Father,” Stalking Wolf murmured.
“My prayers go with ye, laddie.” Killian drew a long-bladed knife from his belt and pressed it into his son’s hand. “Good journey, my son.”
“Long life to you, my father,” Stalking Wolf replied. He gazed down at Killian, for another moment, then touched his heels to the mare’s flanks. Head high, he rode west, award the land of the setting sun.
He did not look back.