Born to a father who was the town drunkard and an Apache mother, Mitch Garrett grew up in a town that refused to accept him, all, that is, save for one skinny little girl, the preacher’s daughter, Alisha Faraday.
As time passed, Mitch and Alisha’s friendship grew into something far stronger, until the town’s hatred drove Mitch away. But miles and years couldn’t change the feelings of his heart, feelings that he refused to acknowledge.
Haunted by memories of what might have been, Mitch returns home to find that his love for Alisha, and hers for him, are as strong as ever, only to discover a secret that threatens to destroy their future.
Canyon Creek, New Mexico
He was back.
Alisha Faraday heard the news at least a dozen times in as many minutes. It seemed everyone who saw Mitch Garrett ride into town that rainy Friday in late April felt duty bound to stop by the schoolhouse and tell her the news. Her first instinct was to run away just as fast and as far as she could.
Hands shaking, she tried to concentrate on the test papers she had been grading, but it was no use. The words, whether neatly printed by Betsy Hazelwood or haphazardly scrawled by Bobby Moss, made no sense. How could she be expected to think about nouns and verbs and proper sentence structure when he was back?
Oh, Lord, what would her father say?
If only she could crawl under her desk and hide, from Mitch, from the prying eyes of the town, from herself.
She folded her hands on top of her desk to still their trembling. Funny, she had never known she was a coward, until now. She glanced around the schoolroom. Nothing had changed. The chalkboard was still covered with the multiplication tables she had written out for the class earlier. The empty desks stood in neat rows, like soldiers at attention. The books were neatly stacked on the shelves; the world globe was in its proper place. Heat rose from the big old black cast iron stove in the corner. Her old winter coat and hat hung on a peg near the door, along with her umbrella.
Taking a deep breath, Alisha looked out the west window, staring at the rugged snow-capped mountains that loomed in the distance. She was worrying needlessly. Mitch had ridden out of her life five years ago. She had been little more than a child then, barely seventeen. No doubt he had forgotten all about her by now.
She hadn't forgotten him, though. Not for a day, not for a minute.
And now he was back.
Putting her head down on her folded arms, she closed her eyes, and
lifted the lid on the Pandora’s Box of memories she had kept tightly closed for so long. . .
Alisha sat in her chair, eyes wide, while the schoolmaster meted out punishment to the boy who had stolen her lunch out of her pail. Mitch Garret, the town bad boy, stood in front of the class, his head high, one arm outstretched, while Mr. Fontaine struck his palm with a ruler. The usual punishment for breaking one of the school rules was ten whacks, but Mr. Fontaine hadn’t stopped at ten.
Mitch stared at the back wall, his face an impassive mask, his eyes dark and angry as Mr. Fontaine meted out an additional ten blows. Mitch hadn’t flinched, nor had he cried out. He just stood there, his body rigid, looking old beyond his years as he counted the blows out loud.
Tears stung her eyes and dripped down her cheeks as she imagined his pain and humiliation. She had told Mr. Fontaine she didn’t care that Mitch had taken her lunch, but Mr. Fontaine hadn’t paid any attention to her.
“The boy is no better than a common thief,” the schoolmaster had replied brusquely, “and he must be punished.”
Cringing in her seat, she listened as Mitch counted out the remaining blows. She thought Mr. Fontaine looked as though he was enjoying it far too much.
“You will stand there and contemplate your sinful behavior until class is dismissed,” Mr. Fontaine said curtly.
And Mitch had stood there, his gaze still fixed on the back wall. She had the feeling he wasn’t really there at all, that his spirit had somehow slipped out of the classroom, leaving them all behind.
When school was dismissed an hour later, he trailed behind her as she walked home.
Wondering if he meant to do her harm because of what had happened, she whirled around, her heart pounding. “Why are you following me?”
“I want to know why you were crying,” he said, his voice and expression sullen.
She looked up at him. He was eleven and tall for his age. A lock of unruly black hair fell across his forehead. His black cotton trousers were worn and faded. His shirt was tight across the shoulders; the sleeves were too short. She risked a glance at his hand and he shoved it into his pocket, but not before she saw that his palm was still red and swollen.
“Go way,” she said. “I’m not supposed to talk to you.” Her mother and father had both warned her to have nothing to do with “that boy”. Her mother thought it was shocking that a bastard of mixed blood should be allowed to go to school with the children of the town’s leading citizens. Alisha didn’t know what the word “bastard” meant, but she had known it was something bad by the tone of her mother’s voice.
“Why did you cry for me?” Mitch demanded.
Alisha shrugged, embarrassed that he had seen her tears.
“I felt sorry for you,” she mumbled. “That’s all.”
“Well, don’t ever do it again. I don’t need no little girls crying for me.”
“I’m not a little girl,” she retorted, even though it was true. She was short and petite, like her mother, and very sensitive about the fact that people thought she was no more than six when she was actually eight and a half. “Why did you steal my lunch?”
He glared at her as if he hated her. “Cause I was hungry, that’s why.”
“You should have told me you forgot your lunch. I would have shared mine with you.”
He looked away, and she saw a flood of red climb up his neck. “I didn’t forget it,” he muttered, and before she could ask any more questions, he turned and ran away, splashing across the creek to where the town’s poor people lived.
He hadn’t come to school the next day, and then it was Saturday, and there was no school.
She had wandered through the house, looking for something to do. Mama was ironing her Sunday-go-to-meeting dress; Papa was working on his sermon. Usually, she loved to read, but that day her books and her games and her dolls held no interest, so she had left the house and walked down to the creek. She wasn't supposed to go down by the creek alone, but she told herself it would be okay to go down there just this once. She wouldn’t go in the water; she would just sit on the edge of the creek and maybe put her feet in the water.
She walked along the bank until she came to the big flat rock that jutted out over the creek. Sitting down, she took off her shoes and stockings, then, her legs dangling over the edge of the rock, she swished her feet back and forth in the cool water.
"This is my spot."
Her head jerked up and she saw Mitch Garret standing on the far side of the creek, his hands fisted on his lean hips. "Is not,” she retorted. “Besides, it’s on my side of the creek.”
"Doesn’t matter,” he said imperiously. “Go away."
He glared at her a moment, then waded across the creek. Her heart began to pound wildly as he scrambled up the slippery bank. Every instinct she possessed urged her to run away as fast as she could, but before she could stand up, he was there, towering over her. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, just some funny looking thing that tied around his waist. A long flap covered his privates. He was so skinny, she could count his ribs.
"Go away," he said. "This is my place."
"Why are you so mean?"
"Take after my old man, I guess."
She looked up at him, then reached into her pocket and withdrew a shiny red apple. "Want a bite?"
"No," he said, but she could almost see his mouth water.
"I'll give you the whole thing if you let me stay."
He regarded her for a moment, then shrugged. "Okay." He took the apple from her hand and devoured it, core and all, in a few quick bites, making her wish she had brought two.
"Why weren't you at school yesterday?" she asked.
He looked away, his expression guarded. "I was...I was sick."
"Oh. Well, I'm glad you're feeling better."
"Yeah." He sat down beside her, his long legs dangling over the edge of the rock.
"What's that thing you're wearing?"
"It's a breechclout."
She frowned. "I've never seen anything like that. Where did you get it?"
"My ma made it."
"Oh?" She would have asked more questions, but something in his voice warned her not to.
"Wanna go swimming?" he asked gruffly.
"I can’t. I don’t know how."
"You can't swim?" He looked astonished.
She shook her head.
"I could teach you, if you wanna learn."
"Really?" She looked at the water, then shook her head. "I don't think so."
"What's the matter?” he asked, the challenge in his voice matched by the look in his dark blue eyes. “You scared?"
She was, but she wouldn't have admitted it to him, not for anything.
He stood up and held out his hand. "Come on then."
She didn't want to, but couldn't think of any way to refuse, and then, to her relief, she heard her mother calling.
"I've got to go," she said. Scrambling to her feet, she grabbed her shoes and stockings and ran all the way home.
She started taking extra food and sweets in her lunch pail after that, sneaking them to Mitch when no one was looking. Even as a boy, he had been inordinately proud. He had hated her because she knew he was poor and hungry all the time, had hated accepting her charity, and yet he had been just a boy and all the pride in the world wouldn’t fill his empty belly.
She saw Mitch often that long, lazy summer. Her mama was in the family way and so sick that the doctor told papa she should stay in bed until the baby was born. Papa hired a girl from town to look after her and Mama and do the housekeeping chores, but Chloe didn't care what Alisha did, so long as she didn't cause any trouble. It offered Alisha a kind of freedom she had never had before.
She went to the creek every chance she got, drawn to Mitch without knowing why. She took him apples and fried chicken and when Chloe baked, she took him sugar cookies and bread fresh from the oven.
One sunny afternoon not long after their first meeting at the river, he taught her how to swim. Clad in her underwear, she followed him into the creek where the water ran deep and slow.
“You scared?” he asked, and she shook her head.
She wasn’t scared at all, not with Mitch there beside her, and before long, she was swimming. It was exciting, exhilarating, and she swam until she was exhausted and then they climbed out of the creek and flopped down on a patch of sun-warmed grass. She stared up at the cloudless sky, basking in the warmth of the sun.
“What does your daddy do?” she asked when she caught her breath.
“He doesn’t do anything,” Mitch replied sullenly.
“He must do something,” Alisha insisted. She had seen Mitch’s father in town from time to time. He was tall, handsome man with cold blue eyes. She had never seen him smile.
“He’s a gambler,” Mitch said.
Alisha’s eyes widened. “Really?” Her papa often preached against the evils of gambling, declaring that saloons were dens of iniquity.
Mitch looked at her, daring her to say something. She wisely changed the subject. “Tell me another story.”
She loved the stories he told her, stories his Apache mother told him about Coyote the Trickster and why the raven was black. “Please?”
He sighed. “Did I tell you the one about how death came into the world?”
Alisha shook her head. “No.”
“Well, a long time ago, people lived forever. Nobody got sick, and nobody died. I don’t know why. Maybe nobody ever thought about it. But one day, when the earth started getting crowded, they knew had to make a decision about it. Coyote didn’t want death in the world. He thought it would be a bad thing. He said he was going to throw a stick in the river. If it sank, people would begin to die but it if floated, people would go on living forever. So he threw the stick into the water, and it floated.
“Then Raven decided he should have a say. He said he would throw a stone in the water. If the stone floated, there would be no death but if it sank, people would begin to die. So he threw the stone in the water, and it sank to the bottom. And that’s how death got started.”
Alisha clapped her hands. It was a foolish story, of course. Young as she was, she knew it wasn’t true. Papa had told her Adam and Eve had brought death into the world, and Papa wouldn’t lie. Mitch’s story was just a fairy tale, like the ones Mama told her at bedtime, but she loved Mitch’s stories, just as she loved the hours she spent with him.
In the days and weeks that followed, he taught her how to snare a rabbit and cook it on a spit over an open fire. Once, she asked him to teach her how to fish, but he had refused. When she asked why, he explained that Usen did not intend for snakes, frogs, or fish to be eaten. Likewise, the Apache did not eat pork or turkey. They shunned bear meat, believing that the spirits of evil people sometimes returned to earth in the bodies of bears. It was no wonder he was always hungry, she thought, when there were so many things he wouldn’t eat. And yet, to her horror, he told her he had eaten gophers and squirrels.
He taught her a few words of Apache. Gah meant rabbit, gidi meant cat, dloo was the word for bird, baya meant coyote. Ashoge was the word for thank you, ya a teh meant hello.
It was the best summer of her life, until her mother died and the baby with her. Papa told Alisha the news, then took her by the hand and led her into the dark bedroom so she could kiss Mama goodbye. Alisha stared at the body on the bed, with its pinched waxy gray face, then turned and ran out of the room.
Sobbing, hardly able to see where she was going for her tears, she cried Mitch’s name as she ran down to creek, praying that he would be there. She stumbled once, scraping her knee on a rock, but she hardly noticed the pain. Mama was dead.
She found Mitch sitting cross-legged on their rock, tossing pebbles into the creek. He had taken one look at her tear-stained face and opened his arms. He held her while she cried, held her and rocked her, soothing her with his presence. He didn’t tell her she had to be strong, or that Mama and the baby had gone to a better place. He just held her until she had no more tears. And then he had washed the blood from her knee and patted it dry with her handkerchief.
“Will you come to the funeral, Mitchy?” she asked, sniffing.
“Sure, if you want me to.”
The funeral was the next day. Alisha stood between Chloe and Mama’s best friend, Mrs. McKenny, trying to be brave while Papa talked about what a good woman Mama had been, how she had loved her family and been a good example to others, how she had cared for the sick and taken food to the poor and the infirm.
Alisha glanced over her shoulder from time to time, hoping to catch a glimpse of Mitch. He couldn’t stand at the graveside with the other mourners, but she knew he was there, out of sight behind a tree.
Later, after all the mourners had told her how sorry they were, after everyone had gone home and Papa had shut himself up in his study and Chloe was busy in the kitchen, she crept down to the river and into Mitchy’s waiting arms.
Nothing was the same at home after Mama died. Papa didn’t laugh any more. His sermons, once filled with hope and joy and a love for life, grew dark and somber. Chloe stayed on to keep house and cook.
When Mitch turned fifteen, he quit school and went to work full time in one of the saloons. She had been afraid she wouldn't see him any more after that, but he had sought her out, especially in the summer.
She was thirteen and Mitch sixteen when he kissed her for the first time. They were sitting on the rock near the creek - she had come to think of it as their rock - when he drew her into his arms. His lips were gentle and sweet as they claimed hers. He had closed his eyes, but she had kept hers open. His eyelashes were short and thick.
With an oath, he drew away from her.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, disappointed that he had ended it so quickly.
“Damn, you sure don’t kiss like a little girl!”
She glared at him, and he laughed out loud.
‘I know, I know,” he said, still laughing, “you’re not a little girl.” He looked at her as if seeing her for the first time, making her feel self-conscious of her budding breasts. “You’re not a little girl at all.”
She stuck her tongue out at him, angry because he had ruined the most magical moment of her whole life.
“Don’t stick that tongue out at me unless you mean to use it.”
She frowned at him. “What do you mean?”
He didn’t answer. Instead, he grabbed her and pulled her up against him. And then he kissed her again, showing her just what he meant.
She gasped as his tongue slid over her lower lip, licking, sucking gently, then slid into her mouth. Her gasp of surprise soon turned into a muted sound of pleasure. She melted against him, her body pressed intimately against his, her breasts crushed against his chest. Heat flooded through her. Her eyelids fluttered down. Her heart began to pound.
It was, she thought, a kiss she would never forget. . .
And she never had. Alisha lifted her head from her desk and looked out the window. That kiss was burned into her memory like a brand.
And now he was back.
With a sigh, Alisha graded the last paper, then stood up, stretching the kinks out of her back and shoulders. Extinguishing the lamp on her desk, she put on her coat and hat, pulled on her gloves, picked up her umbrella.
Leaving the schoolhouse, she closed and locked the door, then stood on the stoop for a moment, staring at the rain. She frowned as she faced the prospect of slogging through the mud and then, with a faint grin, she remembered another rainy day...
She stood at the window, watching the lightning streak through the clouds. She hated rainy days, hated them because they kept her from the river. From Mitch. She wondered what he was doing, if he was missing her, too.
She had been turning away from the window when something pinged against the glass. Looking down, she saw Mitch standing outside, looking up. He grinned when he saw her, waved for her to come out.
Laughing, she opened the window and leaned out over the sill. "Mitchy, what are you doing here?" she called in a loud whisper.
"Waiting for you," he called back. "Come on out, 'Lisha. Let's go for a walk."
"A walk? Are you crazy? It's raining."
He shrugged. "So what. A little water won't hurt you. Besides, you can only get so wet."
She grinned. What was a little rain when Mitchy was there, waiting for her? Happiness bubbled up inside her, as it always did when he was near. "Be right down."
Bundled up in coat, boots, hat, scarf and gloves, she tiptoed down the stairs and out the back door. He was waiting for her behind the ancient cottonwood tree where they always met. Alisha shook her head. As usual, he was wearing only a shirt and his clout. She had never seen him wear a coat, and wondered now if he even owned one.
"Don't you ever get cold?" she asked.
Mitch shook his head. "Warriors don’t get cold,” he said with a touch of arrogance.
“I suppose they don’t get wet, either,” she muttered.
But he only laughed. “Come on," he said, and reaching for her hand, he started to run.
Feeling happy and light-hearted, she followed him. Mitch loved to run. Once, she had told him that proper young ladies did not run, it was unseemly. But he had just laughed at her. "You're not a lady yet, proper or otherwise, Miss Alisha Faraday," he had retorted. "Besides, ladies never have any fun."
She had thought about that a minute, and decided he was right. None of the ladies in town ever seemed to have time to have a good time. They were always complaining about something....the price of sugar, the new saloon, the speed with which their children outgrew their clothes, the ever-growing Indian problem. Alisha had promised herself she would never be like them.
They spent the day in the rain, running, exploring, swimming in the deep part of the creek. Later, they took shelter in a cave Mitchy had found the year before. He laid a fire and they huddled beside it, he clad only in his clout, she in her chemise and drawers, while their clothing dried.
They sat close together, one of the blankets Mitch kept in the cave draped over their shoulders while they chewed on hunks of beef jerky. He had told her he came here sometimes, to be alone. Though he had never said so, she was sure he came here to get away from his father. She knew Mitch’s father beat him. She had, on occasion, caught a glimpse of bruises on his arms and back. She suspected that, on those occasions when she didn’t see him for a day or two, it was because he was too badly hurt, or because the bruises were where he couldn’t hide them and he was too ashamed to let her see. Knowing how proud he was, she had never mentioned them.
As always, she couldn't keep her eyes off him. He fascinated her, with his long unruly black hair, dark skin, and deep blue eyes. She had always thought Indians had black eyes, but Mitch’s were dark blue, like his father’s. She knew her father would have been horrified if he knew how much time she spent with Mitch. He would have locked her in her room and thrown away the key if he knew, if he even suspected. But she didn't care. She would have risked anything to be with Mitch. He made her life fun, exciting...
Taking a deep breath, Alisha opened her umbrella and stepped off the stoop into the rain. Her life wasn't fun any more. It was as cold and dreary as the weather.
And as for exciting...schoolteachers weren't allowed any excitement. She was expected to be the epitome of decorum at all times. She had to be careful of what she said, what she did, what she wore. She must never utter a cross word, never do anything that could be construed as unladylike, never wear bright colors, never rouge her cheeks or paint her lips. The fact that she was also the preacher’s daughter only made things worse. She must be outgoing and friendly at all times so as not to offend anyone. She must never gossip, or listen to gossip, be careful of the company she kept, avoid even the breath of scandal.
She heard the clock in the church tower chime the hour. Four o'clock. She would have to hurry. Her father expected dinner on the table no later than five.
But she wasn’t thinking about what to fix for dinner when she reached home a few minutes later. Instead her mind was filled with memories of the man she had thought never to see again, and what she would say to him when, inevitably, they met face to face.