He was a hard-riding, hard-drinking drifter, a half-breed who had no use for a frightened white girl fleeing an unwanted wedding. He told himself he needed only the money she offered to guide her across the plains, but half-way between Galveston and Ogallala, where the burning prairie met the endless night sky, he made her his woman.
Now she was his to protect, his to cherish, and he would allow no man – white or Indian – to come between them. There in the vast wilderness where his desire had ignited hers, he swore to change his life path, to fulfill the challenge of his vision quest, if only he could keep her love.
New Mexico, 1846
She paced back and forth, her fingers worrying a lock of hair as she waited for him, knowing he would come to her as he had almost every night for the past eight months.
“Hurry, Jonnie,” she whispered. “Please hurry.”
She was afraid. For the first time in her life, she was afraid to face her father’s wrath. What could she say? How could she explain? He’d never forgive her for what she’d done. Never.
She whirled around at the sound of footsteps entering the barn, and felt a rush of relief so intense it was almost painful when she saw Jonnie silhouetted in the doorway.
With a sob, she flew into his arms, sighing with pleasure as his arms enfolded her. She could face anything so long as he was there beside her.
“What is it?” he asked, seeing the worry in her eyes. “What is wrong?”
“Oh, Jonnie, I’m…” She couldn’t say the word.
He said it for her. “Pregnant.” He felt the weight of the world settle on his shoulders as she nodded. He had never intended for this to happen. He’d told himself to leave the ranch before it was too late. But each day he fell more deeply in love with her, and it grew harder to leave, harder to keep from touching her, until, in the end, his desire had overcome his self-control and he had made her his. And then leaving became impossible.
“Oh, Jonnie, what are we going to do? You know how my father hates Indians. All Indians. He’ll never let us get married. Never!”
Jonnie grunted in soft agreement. Harrison Slade would never let a dirty redskin marry his only child.
“We’ll run away,” she said, smiling brightly. “Yes, that’s what we’ll do.”
“No. I am not ashamed of what we have done. I love you.”
Tears glistened in her eyes. “My father has a terrible temper. He’ll kill you.”
Jonnie sighed heavily. The thought had crossed his mind the first time he had dared to touch her, but he would not run away. He was a man, a warrior, and a warrior did not run away from his responsibilities.
“I will meet you here tomorrow night,” he promised solemnly. “We will go to your father together and ask for his permission to marry.”
“And when he refuses?”
“Then we will go to my people.” He took her face in his hands and kissed her gently, tenderly. “Until tomorrow night.”
“Tomorrow night,” she whispered, and left the barn with her head high and her heart full of hope.
Galveston, Texas March 1874
He was dying and he didn’t care. But the pain weakened him, sickened him. He stared at the long-handled knife embedded in his rib cage and felt the vomit rise in his throat. Damn Kylie. The man had the tenacity of a bulldog and the tracking skills of a Cheyenne Dog Soldier.
Uttering a low groan, he closed his eyes and waited for death, sweet welcome death that would release him from the pain that pulsed through him with every beat of his heart.
His hand groped for the bottle at his side. His eyes still closed, he opened his mouth and let the last few drops of whiskey dribble onto his tongue and then, abruptly, he tossed the empty bottle away.
He hadn’t failed at everything, he mused ruefully. He’d been a damned good drunk! He’d bought the best Kentucky bourbon when he could afford it, had begged for beer when he was broke, enduring the jeers and ridicule of his betters for the promise of just one drink.
How about a rain dance, Chief?
He’d cheerfully obliged, making up the steps as he went along, but they didn’t know that. He’d danced, he’d let them call him names—dirty redskin, drunken Injun, no-account half-breed. He’d been called all those things and worse, but he didn’t care because he was afraid they were all true.
A low groan escaped his lips as a fresh wave of pain swept through him. They were right. They were all right. He was nothing but a worthless half-breed born on the wrong side of the blanket, deserted by his father before he was born, despised by his mother because he was a constant reminder of the man who had abandoned her.
But it didn’t matter now. None of it mattered now. He’d killed Lou Kylie’s kid brother, and Kylie had killed him and it was all over now. No more looking over his shoulder, wondering when Kylie would strike. It was all behind him and there was nothing left but death.
He smiled faintly. At least he’d die outside, where his spirit could fly free. The Navajo believed that the spirits of those who died indoors were forever doomed to remain inside. The body might be removed and buried, but the ghost remained.
He didn’t believe such nonsense, of course, couldn’t even remember where he’d heard such superstitious hokum. But he was glad to be outside nevertheless. He felt a sense of euphoria as he drifted into a land of quiet darkness, felt himself slipping down, down, into nothingness…
Carolyn Chandler darted between two buildings and hurried down the dark alley, one hand holding up her long russet-colored skirts as she ran blindly through the night. She had to get away before it was too late, away from Roger Brockton, away from her father.
Despair followed her down the alley. Her father had sheltered and pampered her all her life, giving her everything she had ever needed, everything she had ever asked for, until now.
Earlier that night, she had listened to her father in stunned disbelief as he informed her she was to marry Roger Brockton the following Sunday at noon.
She had stared at him blankly, certain he didn’t mean it, praying that it was some kind of horrible joke. Not only was Roger Brockton more than twice her age, he was two inches shorter than she was and almost as round as a barrel.
She had begged her father to reconsider, and when that failed, she had resorted to tears. But for the first time in her life, even that surefire ruse had failed her. She had begged for an explanation, but none had been forthcoming. She would marry Roger Brockton the following Sunday at noon, her father had warned, or she would find herself locked away in the convent in New Orleans.
Carolyn dashed the tears from her eyes. She simply could not marry Mr. Brockton. And being shut up in a convent, deprived of pretty clothes and servants and most of all, her freedom, was simply too awful to contemplate. So she was taking the only course left to her. She was running away, running just as fast as she could.
She was halfway down the alley now. Dark brick buildings rose on both sides. Raucous laughter and the notes of a tinny piano wafted on the salty air, and she realized she was in the alley behind one of the brothels.
The thought spurred her onward and she ran faster. A little cry of alarm erupted from her throat as her foot struck something hard, and then she fell, bruising her hands on the hard-packed ground.
She lay still for a moment, the breath knocked from her body, her hands stinging. And then, to her horror, she realized she was sprawled across a body.
Carolyn scrambled quickly to her feet, her insides churning as she stared at the man lying on his back in the dirt. A knife protruded from his right side, and his shirt was wet with blood. She glanced around, holding one hand at her throat.
He’d been attacked and robbed, she thought, or, more likely, killed in a drunken brawl, for he reeked of cheap whiskey. And blood.
Gathering her skirts, Carolyn stepped around the body, her heart set on escape. And then she heard a low moan.
He wasn’t dead.
Carolyn hesitated, then took another step. She had to get away before daylight, had to find a place to hide. The injured man would have to take care of himself.
But the man groaned again, the sound raw with pain and tinged with despair, and she knew she couldn’t just leave him lying there on the ground.
Heaving a sigh of resignation, Carolyn knelt beside him, her gaze shying away from the blade’s narrow haft.
She was trying to decide how best to help him when his eyelids flickered open and she found herself staring into a pair of deep gray eyes.
“Just lie still,” she murmured. “I’ll help you.”
“No.” His voice was gruff and edged with pain. “Let me die.”
Carolyn blinked, startled by his request. Surely she had misunderstood him. “Do you live near here?” she asked.
The man nodded.
“I’ll take you home.”
“No…just…leave me alone.”
Carolyn glanced over her shoulder as her mind worked furiously. It was almost midnight. She had to find a place to hide until she could find a way out of town, someplace where her father would never think to look for her. What better place to hide than in the home of this stranger?
“Please, tell me where you live,” she said urgently. “I need a place to stay.”
He stared at her thoughtfully. The ground was hard, cold, and damp. Perhaps it would be better to die in his own bed, after all. “If I take you there, will you let me die?”
His speech was slow and slurred, whether from drink or pain she couldn’t say. Probably both, she decided.
Carolyn nodded. “Yes, but please, let’s hurry.” He stared at her for a long moment. Then, gathering what little strength he had left, he took hold of the knife and jerked it from his flesh. A great gush of blood bubbled from the wound.
Choking back the urge to vomit, Carolyn pulled the white silk scarf from her hair, folded it into a neat square, and placed it over his wound. Lifting the man’s hand, she pressed it over the makeshift bandage to hold it in place.
“Help me up,” he murmured, and reached for her hand.
He was a tall man, big through the chest and shoulders, and it was all she could do to support his weight. It was fortunate he didn’t live far from the alley, Carolyn thought as they reached the front door.
She wrinkled her nose with distaste when they entered the place. It was little more than a shack built of clapboard and tar paper. An oil lamp dangled from a wire affixed to a beam in the ceiling, illuminating the dingy interior. There was little furniture in the main room. A broken-down sofa and a cane-backed chair were placed against one wall. An ancient cast-iron stove stood in the far corner, an empty woodbox beside it.
The man gestured toward a half-open door. “In there.”
Carolyn nodded as she helped him through a narrow doorway into a small bedroom with an iron cot topped by a lumpy mattress and a worn sheet that might have once been white. The stub of a candle stood on a wooden crate beside the cot. The whole place smelled musty and dirty.
She helped the man to the bed, and saw his face go pale as he dropped down on the mattress and closed his eyes. Lighting the candle, she saw that her scarf was soaked with blood, and she wondered how he could possibly still be alive. Surely he would be dead soon. The thought frightened her. She did not want to spend the night in this awful place with a dead man.
She was staring at him, wondering what to do, when she heard the front door open and a woman’s voice calling, “Morgan? Morgan, are you here?”
Fearful of being caught in such a disreputable place with a wounded man, Carolyn’s gaze darted anxiously around the room, looking for another way out, but there was only the one door, and a tiny window set in the far wall that was too small to accommodate her.
Carolyn looked up as a voluptuous redhead, clad in a skin-tight green skirt and flimsy low-cut yellow blouse, entered the bedroom.
“Who are you?” the redhead asked, her voice registering her obvious surprise at finding another woman in the house.
“Who are you?” Carolyn retorted, piqued by the woman’s unfriendly tone.
The woman frowned at Carolyn and then, seeing the man lying on the cot, flew to his side. “Morgan!” She turned to glare at Carolyn. “What have you done to him?”
“I haven’t done anything,” Carolyn said quickly. “I found him lying in an alley with a knife in his side.”
“He’s lost a great deal of blood,” the redhead remarked. She glanced over her shoulder at Carolyn. “Will you stay with him while I go for help?”
“Yes, but, please, don’t tell anyone I’m here.”
“How can I?” the woman retorted irritably. “I don’t even know who you are.” She studied Carolyn through suspicious brown eyes. “Are you sure you’ve never seen Morgan before, never been here before?”
“Quite sure. You have no need to be jealous.”
The redhead nodded, then left the room. Carolyn breathed a sigh of relief as she heard the front door open and close. She glanced at the man, Morgan. He had good taste in women, if you ignored the skimpy skirt and blouse. The redhead was tall and beautiful and amply endowed, everything Carolyn had always wanted to be.
Carolyn stared at her reflection in the narrow window. She was short, plain, and a trifle plump. “Baby fat,” her father had always said. But she wasn’t a baby anymore. She was seventeen and she’d resigned herself to the fact that she’d never be tall or beautiful or voluptuous. Her hair was an ordinary shade of brown, and while her features were pleasant enough, she knew she’d never be toasted as a beauty. Her eyes were her best feature. Large and green beneath delicately arched brows, they were fringed by thick dark lashes.
A low groan drew her attention to the man on the bed. His hair was long and black, and a beard covered the lower half of his face. His skin was dark, and she decided he was probably one of the Mexicans who worked on the docks. His clothes were worn, covered with a thin layer of grime. He was just another drunk, she thought derisively, in a town full of drunks. She wondered what the redheaded woman saw in him.
Morgan opened his eyes and stared at the girl standing beside the bed. “Who are you?” he asked groggily.
“Don’t you remember? I found you in the alley. I brought you home.”
He nodded faintly, then glanced down at his right side. Blood covered his shirt and had soaked the scarf that had been placed over the wound. It hurt to breathe, and he wondered how much longer he had to live, how much longer he’d have to endure the pain of his wound, the pain of living.
He lifted his gaze to the woman. She was staring at him as if he were some kind of oddity, her expression a benign mixture of curiosity and pity.
“Can I get you anything?” Carolyn asked, disconcerted by his unblinking stare. His eyes were a deep, dark gray, almost black in the dim light of the bedside candle.
Carolyn glanced around the bleak room. “Where?”
“Under the bed.”
Grimacing, she peered under the rickety cot and found a bottle of cheap bourbon. Uncorking the bottle, she placed her free hand under the man’s head and held the flask to his lips. He drank deeply, swallowing the fiery liquid as if it were water.
“You disapprove,” he remarked as she took her hand from the back of his head and placed the bottle on the crate.
Carolyn shrugged. “Why should I care if you drink yourself to death?”
A wry grin touched his lips. “You’ve got that right, miss,” he muttered, thinking that if he’d been sober, Kylie would never have been able to sneak up on him. “Drink was the death of me.”
“You’re not dead yet.”
“But you promised to let me die. I’d think you’d let me go peacefully instead of nagging me about the evils of demon rum when I’m about to reap the consequences.”
Carolyn frowned at him. “Why are you so eager to die?”
“Maybe ‘cause I’ve got nothing to live for.”
She was about to assure him that everyone had something to live for when she heard the front door open, and then the redhead entered the room, followed by a large woman with long gray braids.
Carolyn blinked in surprise. She had supposed the redhead was going for a doctor, but the gray-haired woman looked like an Indian.
Anger flared in the man’s deep gray eyes when he saw the old woman. “What is she doing here?” he demanded.
Carolyn took a step back, grateful that his anger wasn’t directed at her.
“I brought her here,” the redhead stated in a no-nonsense tone. “You need help.”
“Get the hell out of here, Red, and take these two meddlers with you.”
“Don’t be silly, Morgan. I’m not going to let you bleed to death. I’m surprised you’re still alive with all the blood you’ve lost.”
The Indian woman paid no attention to the argument going on between Morgan and the red-haired woman. Crossing the room, she opened the window, then moved to stand beside the bed.
Lifting her arms, she began to sing of all the things in the world, declaring them to be as perfect as when they had first been made. She praised the heavens and the wind, the clouds and the rain, lightning and the rainbow, the moon and the sun and the stars, the earth, the mountains and the corn and all things that grew in the earth.
Her words closed around Morgan, and though he understood only a few words of her language, he knew she was singing a healing song that had been taught her by an old Navajo shaman. Her voice was low, slightly husky, and strangely soothing.
Once, she had told him that certain songs were sung over the sick to place the sick person in a perfect world, so that a new and perfect life would come to him and he would be reborn into a state of wholeness. She had said that the song told of how all things were made in pairs, to help each other, as the heavens helped the earth with the rain.
Yellow Sage had taught him the song long ago, but he had forgotten all of it save for one verse.
Now the Mother Earth,
And the Father Sky,
Meeting, joining one another,
Helpmates ever, they.
All is beautiful.
All is beautiful.
All is beautiful, indeed.
Yellow Sage had taught him other things as well. He’d learned that the Navajo believed that First-Man was made from white corn, and that First-Woman had been made from yellow corn. White was the color of the east, yellow the color of the west.
He had been eager, almost desperate, to learn of his father’s people. Yellow Sage had taught him willingly, somehow sensing his need to know about his Indian heritage, his need to feel a bond with the father he had never known, however slim and intangible that bond might be.
When she’d finished singing, Yellow Sage opened her bag and laid out her nostrums, sterilized a pair of scissors. Next, she removed the sodden scarf and eased Morgan out of his shirt, exposing the wound.
When she reached down to touch him, he batted her hands away. He was in pain, weary in body and spirit, and he wanted only to be left alone.
“You will have to hold him,” Yellow Sage ordered curtly.
Red immediately took hold of Morgan’s right arm, then stared at Carolyn expectantly.
With great reluctance, Carolyn took hold of his left arm and held it down while the Indian woman began to wash the blood from the ugly, ragged wound.
Morgan swore under his breath, cursing the fact that he was too weak to make them leave him alone. Every touch was agony and he wanted only to die, to drift away into blessed oblivion and forget he had ever been born. The whole thing had been a mistake, anyway. His parents should never have met. Hell, they never would have met at all if his father hadn’t gone to work for Harrison Slade, but one thing had led to another, and Slade’s daughter had fallen in love with the Navajo wrangler, and Morgan was the result. Supposedly, Morgan’s father had promised to marry his mother once he learned she was pregnant, but he’d hightailed it out of town instead.
Morgan bit back a groan as the old Indian woman swabbed his side with some foul-smelling concoction, then rinsed the wound with warm water. Though her hands were gentle, each touch brought fresh waves of torment. He looked up, his gaze settling on the dark-haired girl holding down his left arm as Yellow Sage began stitching the ragged cut in his side. Who was she, this girl with eyes the color of new grass and hair as soft and brown as freshly turned earth?
He clenched his teeth as the needle pierced his flesh. He saw the green-eyed girl’s face turn fish-belly white as she watched Yellow Sage sew up the wound. What had Green Eyes been doing prowling around in the alley behind the Golden Grotto? And why the hell hadn’t she just left him alone? Oh, yes, he remembered, she needed a place to stay.
The answer raised more questions. She had the look of someone accustomed to money, servants, and three meals a day. Her dress was of dark russet-colored silk, the scarf she had placed over his wound was finely woven, expensive, as were the boots on her feet and the gold heart-shaped locket she wore on a narrow black ribbon around her neck.
He closed his eyes as Yellow Sage finished stitching the wound. She smeared one of her pungent salves over his side, then wrapped a length of clean linen securely around his middle.
“Will he live?” Red asked anxiously.
Morgan held his breath as he waited for the old woman’s reply. Earlier, he had wanted to die, but not now, not now…
“His life is in the hands of the Great Spirit,” Yellow Sage remarked fatalistically. “If it is his time to meet his Creator, he will die. If not…”
Red nodded, and then looked over at Carolyn. “Are you staying the night?”
Red grunted softly. “Well, I have to go. I’ve been gone too long already.” Bending over the bed, she kissed Morgan on the cheek, then hurried out of the room.
“He will be very sick,” the old woman told Carolyn as she gathered her things. “There will be a fever. You must mix one of these with water and make him drink it,” she said, handing Carolyn some small paper packets. “You must make him drink water, lots of water. And keep him still so he does not reopen the wound.”
Yellow Sage gazed at Carolyn. “Can you do it?”
Carolyn nodded, afraid that if she said no, the old woman might send her away. And she had nowhere to go.
“I will come back tomorrow,” Yellow Sage promised, and tucking her bag under her arm, she left the room.
Birth of a story ~
I was trying to come up with an idea for a new book, way back when, when the words, "He was dying, and he didn't care" popped into my mind, which led me to wonder, who was dying? And why didn't he care. And that how Midnight Fire came about.