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Books by Dorothy Garlock
A Gentle Giving
Love and Cherish
Ribbon in the Sky
River of Tomorrow
The Searching Hearts
Sins of Summer
The Listening Sky
This Loving Land
Wild Sweet Wilderness
Wind of Promise
POPULAR LIBRARY EDITION
Copyright © 1986 by Dorothy Garlock
All rights reserved.
Popular Library® and the fanciful P design are registered trademarks of Warner Books, Inc.
Popular Library books are published by
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Hachette Book Group
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New York, NY 10017
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First eBook Edition: August 2009
With a breathy hiss, the whip sliced through the air. It burned the man's bare buttocks like a firebrand and beads of blood popped out on his white skin.
"Yeeow!" he yelled as the thin leather of the whip struck him again. He reared up from the girl who was kicking and thrashing beneath him, and the leather wrapped itself around his thighs like a serpent.
"Get off her, you… ruttin' stud!" The whip descended again, this time striking him with even greater force as rage gave strength to the arm of the girl wielding it. "Get off her or I'll take your filthy hide off in strips and feed it to the buzzards!"
The man flung himself toward the gunbelt he had discarded when lust had been all that was on his mind, but the leather lashed out again and the gun spun out of his reach. The girl in the britches and long shirt, tightly belted at her waist, sprang from her horse and landed lightly on her feet without missing a stroke with the whip. It swished as it leaped to its target.
"Goddamn you, Lorna!" the man yelled. "What the hell's the matter with you? Brice said I could—" He pulled up his britches and dived for the underbrush to escape the lash. "You goddamn she-wolf—"
"Yellow-backed, belly-crawlin' buzzard bait! All the brains you got is there!" She grabbed up his gun and fired into the brush. "Damn you," she yelled. "I hope I shot it off!"
"Someday I'll haul you off that horse and slap the shit outta you—" His shouted threat was drowned out by the sound of the second shot fired from his gun.
"You're not man enough to haul a sick pup off a horse, Billy Tyrrell! Hear me?" Lorna grasped the gun by the barrel and flung it far out into a tangle of briar bushes. She heard the man's strangled bellow of fury and glimpsed him darting behind a curtain of cedars.
"Did he hurt you, Bonnie?" She turned to the girl who sat unanswering on the ground with her arm over her face, the bulge of her pregnancy obvious beneath her thin dress. Lorna knelt down beside her. "Does Brice know that polecat's after you?" she asked gently, her voice belying the fury that almost choked her.
Bonnie lowered her arm and looked at her. Her eyes were dry, dull, and reflected a hopelessness that tore at Lorna's heart. "Brice sent me down here knowin' that Billy'd be here." Her voice sank to the thinnest thread of sound.
"Oh, Bonnie." Dark, violet-blue eyes glittered with a cold light. "That low-down, miserable excuse for a man!"
Bonnie got shakily to her feet and pulled the twigs from her hair. She was a half-head taller than Lorna and thin to the point of gauntness, except for her ballooned abdomen. She wasn't pretty; her mouth was too wide, her nose slightly crooked, and her cheekbones too prominent. But her brown eyes had a gentle, doelike quality and her dark red hair curled tightly.
"He says I'm a crippled… slut, and this is all I'm good for." She pulled the sleeve of her dress down over the stub at the end of her left arm. "He says the sight of it makes him sick."
"Aah!" Lorna snorted angrily. She had a long mane of blue-black hair, and now she whipped it back over her shoulder with a quick toss of her head. "He makes me sick!" Her expression hardened. "You're coming home with me," she said firmly.
"I can't. He'd come for me." There was a fearful tremor in her voice.
"Pa won't let him take you if he knows how he's using you."
Bonnie shook her head. "He knows—"
"Godamighty!" The word exploded from Lorna. "You mean—"
"Not your pa," Bonnie said quickly. "But… he knows Brice told Billy Tyrrell he could have his way with me, if I was willin'. But I ain't, Lorna! I ain't no whore!"
"I know that. When is the baby due?"
"I don't rightly know, but I think in two or three months." She looked away from Lorna's angry stare. "There ain't nothin' I can do. Brice wed me. The preacher said the words."
"That addle-brained fool who spoke words over you was no more a preacher than I am. Brice is a low-down schemer. He knew just what would make you beholden to him."
The ring of iron on a stone caused both women to turn toward the man approaching on a big buckskin horse. He was hatless, and his anger was evident in the redness of his face. Lorna could feel the fear that radiated from the girl beside her.
"I heard shootin'," he said and pulled his horse to a halt. He laid his angry glance on Bonnie. "What in hell's goin' on?"
"I was shooting," Lorna said, her voice icy cold. "I was shooting at that no-good piece of trash you sent down here to pleasure himself on Bonnie."
"Is that what she said?"
"It's what he said, you cold-blooded… lout!"
The man drew in a deep quivering breath. His nostrils flared angrily. "Have you ever tried mindin' your own goddamned business?" he snarled.
Lorna was fully aware that Bonnie would suffer from her interference, but it was too late to do anything except try to get her away from him.
"Come home with me, Bonnie." She caught the girl's arm and tried to turn her to face her.
"I can't… Lorna—"
"Get on back up to the house," Brice ordered.
"You don't have to," Lorna said urgently.
Bonnie hesitated, then moved away, her shoulders slumped dejectedly. Suddenly she paused and looked over her shoulder at the man on the horse.
"Mind me, goddammit!" Brice shouted.
Bonnie's terror burst from her in a choked sob as she ran, stumbling, up the path.
"You're going to kill her and the babe she's carrying!" Lorna accused. She stood with her hands on her hips, the whip curled around her wrist. "Not even an animal treats its mate the way you treat Bonnie."
"You keep your blasted nose out of my business, hear? And keep away from my wife."
"She's no more your wife than I am, Brice Fulton. You had some fake preacher say the words so she'd be docile. A man who'd sell a woman out as a whore is as low as a snake's belly. What's Billy paying, Brice? A jug of whiskey? Or are you getting him to steal a few steers for you?"
Brice Fulton was a large man with a ruddy coloring and pale green eyes that had a way of sliding away from a direct confrontation. But now he fixed his hard gaze on Lorna, and the anger in him came out and struck at her brutally.
"You little twat. You think you're so goddamn high, lordin' it over everybody. You're nothin' but a backwoods slut that's never been outta these mountains. You don't know the first thing 'bout actin' like a lady. Just look at ya—in those britches and your pa's old shirt and actin' so hoity-toity. I've been to places that'd make your eyes bug out—"
"Well, la-de-da!" Lorna threw back her head and loosed a shout of laughter that bounced back and forth between the walls of the narrow canyon. She looked up at the man's unshaven, unkempt, thoroughly disreputable face and her lips curled in a sneer. "Are you saying you're… quality?" Lorna could use her voice unkindly when crossed, and her tone made the word a profound insult. She laughed again and moved around him to go to her horse.
Brice jumped his mount in front of her and his hand reached for her hair. As swiftly as a deer she sprang out of his reach. He sidestepped his mount to pin her against a tree.
"What you need is a strap on your butt 'n a week on your back in my bed. That'd take the strut outta ya!"
"You make me want to puke!"
"I'm tellin' ya to stay away from Bonnie," he snarled and crowded his horse still closer to her.
"If you hurt her—"
"It ain't no business a yours what I do with the cripple."
"You dumb… jackass!" Lorna sneered. "You're the cripple. You've got nothing between your ears but hot air!"
"Someday I'll wring that blasted neck of yours!" He lifted his hand as if to strike her. At that instant an arrow cut through the air and passed inches from his head. The tip buried itself in the trunk of the tree so close to him that the flapping shaft almost touched him. Brice flung himself back and gigged his horse roughly. "What the hell."
"The next one will land right under your stupid ear and come out the other." Lorna leaned nonchalantly against the tree, her small, tight figure wholly relaxed now, amusement in her violet-blue eyes. "C'mon, Brice. Reach for me again," she taunted. "I want to see if White Bull can put a hole in your ugly head."
"You… bitch!" Only his fear of the Indian kept his hands off her. "Someday I'll get you off by yourself 'n take that smirk off your face!" He almost strangled on his anger. He jerked his horse roughly and sent it scurrying out of the clearing.
"If you hurt Bonnie I'll hear about it—then watch your back," she called after him. She picked up her battered flat-crowned hat, jammed it down on her head, and mounted her horse. "The varmint," she muttered. "The weasel, the stinking polecat, slimy snake, filthy hog—"
Volney Burbank sat his small dun horse on the brush-clogged shoulder of the hill overlooking the ravine. He watched with sharp, interested eyes as Lorna mounted her horse and turned him in the direction of the hill. He wiped the snuff stains from his lips with the back of his hand, grinned, and shook his head. If there were anyone in the world the old mountain man loved, it was this girl. Volney had been there when her grandmother had first spanked her bottom. He'd heard her squall just as he'd heard her mother squall when she'd first seen the light of day.
Since he first came to these mountains back in the thirties, more than forty years ago, Volney Burbank had known every generation of Lightbodys. Back in 1810, Baptiste Lightbody, known simply as Light, had brought his bride out from the Missouri Territory. They had crossed land never seen by the white man and had settled in these mountains. They made friends with the Cheyenne, the Dakota and the Sioux. Now they were a legend. Their story had been passed down from generation to generation among both Indian and the Wasicun. Light had been a fearless, deadly foe to his enemies, but true and faithful to his friends. It was said that Maggie, his childlike wife, was beautiful beyond belief, and that the Indians believed her to be of the spirit world. According to the stories passed down, she could run through the woods as fleet as a deer with her feet scarcely touching the ground. She could calm a wild beast with a soothing hand and could sing like a bird. Light loved her more than life. The Indians believed that even the manner in which they died was magical. Light and his beloved were struck by lightning during a thunderstorm. They died and were buried together deep in the forest they loved.
Two of their sons had had itchy feet and wandered on West. The third stayed, wed an immigrant's daughter, Marthy, and raised his family on the homestead in the tradition of his mother and father. Volney had known Lorna's grandparents when they were very young. He had celebrated the birth of each of their six children. Only two girls had lived; one married a teamster and went to Oregon to homestead; the other daughter, pretty as a mountain flower, forever seeking laughter and sunshine, stayed, wed, and had borne Lorna. Marthy had said that Lorna was very much like Maggie. Maggie's hair had been as black as midnight to the day she died, and Lorna's was black and shiny as a crow's wing. The girl had been raised wild and free by her mother and her grandmother.
Volney frowned and his large, gnarled hands gripped the saddle horn as he pondered what had caused a pretty young woman like Lorna's mother to wed up with a sorry man like Frank Douglas. Frank had come West during the gold rush and completely dazzled the young mountain girl.
"Horseshit!" the old man muttered and spat in the grass. "There's no explainin' women or their ways." The only good thing to come from it, he mused, was Lorna. After her mother died trying to have another child, there was nothing to hold what little good there was in Frank. Old Marthy had kept a fair hold on things until she keeled over a couple years back. Now, all that was standing between Lorna and the riff-raff that was filling the mountains was himself and White Bull, Volney thought sadly.
Lorna's horse climbed to the shelf where Volney waited. Her eyes searched for her Indian friend. She spied Volney sitting in the shadows on his little dun and tried to hide the pleasure she felt at seeing her old friend.
"You hiding, Volney?"
Volney's whispery laugh sounded as part of the wind. "Yo're aslippin', gal. Ya 'bout got yoreself cornered by that sidewinder."
"Ha!" Lorna snorted. "He couldn't catch me if I was walking on my hands. Besides, all I had to do was whistle and Gray Wolf would have kicked the stuffing out of him." She patted the big gray on the neck. "Where's White Bull?"
"Rode out when he saw ya was outta the fix ya got yoreself in."
"I wasn't in a fix," Lorna protested. "Why'd he ride out?"
"He don't tell me nothin', no more'n you do." Volney slipped his skinning knife out of its sheath, and tipped his head to the north. "He just said, 'tell Singing Woman my ears are sad.' "
"I've not felt much like singing lately. Besides, he's been up north. He'd not know if I sang or not," Lorna said, her face inscrutable, with a look of inner concentration. She watched her oldest and dearest friend dig a plug from the depths of one of the cavernous pockets of his tunic and busy himself trimming off a substantial chaw. He was waiting. He knew her so well.
Lorna had been singing in these mountains since she was a small child. A traveling man had told Volney he'd not heard a voice such as hers in New York or in the great opera houses of Europe, and that her voice could make her rich and famous. But, of course, Lorna didn't know that she possessed such a wondrous talent. She sang because the feelings inside her had to have an outlet.
She dismounted, walked to the edge of the shelf and stood with her back to Volney. She looked down the vast green mountainside to the river below, drew several deep breaths, and began to sing. The song she sang was a ballad, one Maggie had sung when she was young. Lorna felt strangely exultant when she was singing. Her soprano voice was high and sweet, wild and haunting. It had the carrying quality of a bell but with a suggestion of power held in reserve. The unearthly sound seemed to fill every crevice of the mountains and spill into the canyon below. It sent a shiver down Volney's spine.
"Flesh of my flesh, heart of my heart,
forever, hand in hand with wond'ring steps
through the wide forests we go…"
On the side of the mountain, White Bull heard her. He stopped his spotted pony and listened, as did others. Billy Tyrrell, whose back and buttocks burned from the sting of her whip; Brice Fulton, dragging the saddle from his horse in the corral behind his cabin; Bonnie, dreading the moment Brice came to the house; all heard the glorious sound.
The high sweet notes seemed to dance along the valley from end to end. A Mexican drifter paused, lifted his head, listened, and crossed himself.
Three men driving a dozen head of stolen cattle looked at one another with superstitious fear in their eyes.
"Is that her?" one asked.
"It's her. The Indians call her Singing Woman," the younger man said in a subdued voice. "She's sacred to them. They'd die for 'er. She roams these mountains, day or night, 'n nobody dares lay a hand on 'er."
When Lorna finished her song, White Bull lifted his arm in silent tribute. He knew she had sung for him and it made his heart glad. He put his heels to his pony. It was time to return to the Wind River encampment and prepare his people for the trek south. They would break their journey here on Light's Mountain, and he would see Singing Woman again.
Lorna sat with her back to a mountain spruce, her hat on the ground beside her.
"I'm afraid Brice will kill Bonnie." She handed the sack of dried fruit back to Volney and met his eyes with her dark, violet-blue ones. Under strangely smoky lids and level black brows, they gave her an intense look of concentration.
"Ain't nothin' ya can do if'n she won't leave him."
"He's letting the men use her, and her carrying his babe." There was both worry and scorn in her voice. "Sometimes I think men are the lowest things on this earth. All they've got on their minds is fornicating. They don't care if a woman wants to do it or not. It's just like she's not human. Back in the olden days, Light loved Maggie and my grandpa loved my grandma. What's happened to people, Volney?"
"You bein' bothered by them no-goods?" he asked tartly.
"They know better than to bother me. I'd kill them."
"Brice's fondness for other folk's cows could get him killed."
"I can't wait for that, I've got to get Bonnie away from here." Lorna chewed the fruit slowly and spat out a seed. "When Brice came here four or five years ago, he wasn't so bad. He'd been discharged from the army and said he wanted to start a little ranch. But the longer he's here the worse he gets."
"He showed his good side at first. Your granny was alive then. She saw him fer what he was 'n told him to steer clear a you, or she'd clean his plow. Guess he feared she'd sic White Bull on 'em. Brice is the kind a man what's got to have a woman, 'n he went out 'n got hisself one."
"Bonnie's had it hard. Her folks made her feel like she was dirt because she was born with one hand. Godamighty! It wasn't her fault. Her own folks sold her for a keg of whiskey and a broken down horse and wagon." Lorna pounded the dust from her hat by slapping it against her leg, her dark lashes hiding the worry in her eyes. "She's only sixteen, Volney. At least that's how old she thinks she is."
"What're you now? Eighteen? Nineteen? My, how the years go. It ain't been no time a'tall since ya was wearin' rags on yore hind end."
"Don't change the subject, you old coot. Can't you see I'm worried about Bonnie?"
"I see it, youngun, but there ain't nothin' I can do. Talk to Frank. Maybe he can get Brice to let up on 'er."
"Fiddle-faddle! Pa won't do anything. I think he's scared of Brice. That's another thing, Volney. It's crossed my mind that Pa's up to something. He's throwing out a lot of big talk about maybe setting up a hauling business and going to California or Oregon."
This was news to Volney. He shook his unkempt mane from side to side. "What a ya think of it?"
"I'm thinking there's plenty to do here, if he'd just knuckle down and do it. He's never taken an interest in Light's Mountain. It's like he was here visiting. But if he's set to leave, he'll go alone. There have been Lightbodys on this mountain for more than sixty years. I'm the only one left. Here I stay, here I die."
Volney looked at the girl's set face. She always had a look of preoccupation about her, an air of listening to some distant music that no one else could hear. To him, she was the prettiest thing in the world. A shiny mass of hair was drawn back from her face and tied at the nape of her neck, accentuating her high cheekbones and the pure creamy pallor of her skin. The contrast of pale white skin and dark hair was still startling to Volney, who had known her all her life. She had a lovely mouth, full lipped and red, with a curious deep cleft in the low lip. Her slim young body moved with vibrancy, yet with the grace of the wind on the grass of the plains.
She needed a man by her side, Volney thought, just as Maggie had needed Light to stand between her and the varmints who would use and dishonor her. She was far too sightly to be left alone. A man had only to look at her to start a fever in his veins. White Bull loved her like a daughter, just as he did, but they wouldn't always be there to protect her.
"I've got to be getting on home." Lorna got to her feet.
"Ain't you got no better footgear'n that?"
"Of course I have, but what's wrong with these?" Lorna held out her foot. Her moccasins were well worn and her toe was coming through the end.
Volney's bony shoulders jiggled with his dry chuckling. "If ya ain't the damndest! I'd give a prime beaver pelt to see ya all gussied up in that white deerskin dress Little Owl made fer ya a few years back."
"For goodness sake, Volney! You've seen me in it," she sputtered. "Are you getting so old you've forgotten we spent a week at White Bull's Little Snake camp?"
He laughed. "I ain't forgot how White Bull yanked ya off'n that pony when ya thought to sneak off with a party huntin' a killer b'ar."
"You told him, or he wouldn't have seen me," she accused.
Volney ejected a stream of amber juice. " 'Pears like even White Bull's got sense enuff to know his warriors don't have no bumps on their chest."
"Oh, shut up about it," Lorna said crossly. She swung into the saddle with her lips pressed together to keep from smiling. It was funny now, but it hadn't been at the time. She'd dressed in Gray Owl's clothes and had even put black river mud on her face. Just as the party was about to ride out—whish! White Bull had grabbed her by the back of the tunic and yanked her off the pony. He'd threatened to switch her legs with a willow switch if she tried to deceive him again.
"Are you going to be around long, Volney?"
"I'm athinkin' on it."
"Keep an eye on Brice's cabin, will you?"
"You knowed I was agoin' to anyhow."
"Come up to the house for supper."
"Nope. I got me things to see 'bout."
"All right then, you old goat, don't come!"
Lorna rode along the edge of the shelf until she found a break in the wall's sheer face and sent her horse downward in a dangerous descent that laid her almost flat over its croup. She grinned wickedly, knowing that Volney was watching and that she'd get the sharp edge of the old man's tongue when next they met. She struck the level ground with a jolt that rocked her forward and ran her horse in under the trees screening the canyon's lower end.
Half an hour later, coming out into the open, she saw, a hundred yards away, three riders driving a small herd. They were facing her and she saw alarm evident in their attitudes. There was a brief run of time in which she walked her horse toward them. No one spoke, but one man lifted his hand in greeting. Lorna dragged her horse to a halt and faced the men. She knew them all. They were cronies of her father.
"What are you doing with old man Prichard's cows? Are you taking them somewhere for him?" She looked at each of them with a level, searching gaze.
"It ain't no business of yores what we're adoin', missy," Eli, the older man, growled. "Ride on."
"Seems you're short handed. Looks like mighty hard work if it takes three men to drive a dozen steers. I'll be glad to give you a hand." Lorna leaned on the saddle horn and smiled sweetly. She stared at each man in turn. Luke, Eli's young son, looked away and didn't meet her eyes, but his cousin, Hollis, grinned and edged his horse close to hers so that his knee rubbed against her leg. Lorna sat her mount, holding a tight rein on her fidgeting horse, and eyed him with open distaste.
- On Sale
- Sep 23, 2009
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Grand Central Publishing