The Beloved Woman

The Beloved Woman

Deborah Smith

December 2015 $17.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-664-2

Her people uprooted by broken promises. Her heart torn by conflicting desires.

 
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Her people uprooted by broken promises. Her heart torn by conflicting desires.
The Trail of Tears: The forced exodus of the Cherokee people from their homeland in Georgia to make way for the white gold miners and settlers. Katherine Blue Song’s family never lived to see the Trail of Tears. They were massacred just as she returned from Philadelphia, where she’d been one of the country’s first women trained as a doctor.
Justis Gallatin, a white man, a rough-and-ready miner, was Jesse Blue Song’s friend and partner. Before he buried the victims of the massacre, he made a solemn promise to protect Katherine. But the lovely and headstrong Cherokee healer would not be protected or owned by any man. Her destiny was with her own people, to use her skills on the long, arduous journey westward.
From plush New York hotels to the savage sorrow of the Trail of Tears, Katherine and Justis are torn asunder by a continent’s history and hurled together because of a passion as vast as the lands they love, lost, and fight to regain.
The Beloved Woman is the prequel to Follow The Sun, a collection of three contemporary novels about the Gallatin descendants. 
Deborah Smith is the New York Times and Kindle bestseller of more than thirty-five romance and women’s fiction novels. A Place To Call Home has been voted one of the best romance novels of the 20th century in two reader surveys. The Crossroads Café was No. 1 on the Kindle bestseller list, and has more than 700 4.5 star reviews. Learn more about Deborah’s books at www.bellbridgebooks.com.


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Excerpt


Chapter 1

Your soul has come into the very center of my soul,
never to turn away. I take your soul.

—Cherokee Love Charm

North Georgia, Cherokee Nation, 1838

THE DAY WAS too pretty, too painfully serene in its fresh spring prom­ise, with the late-blooming dogwoods lacing the woods in white and the sweet smell of wild honeysuckle wisping through the air. A man could hurt from thinking about it, could want to kill to ease the pain.

Justis Gallatin walked out of the woods, past the burnt hulls of barns, past orchards standing untended, fields empty, fences broken—the utter destruction of what had once been one of the best farms, white or Indian, in this part of the nation.

He entered a sandy yard canopied by grand old oak trees and watched his partner drop a saddle blanket across one of the four bodies stretched out there. Sam Kirkland glanced up at Justis and saw what he was carrying.

Sam gave a low moan of distress, walked to a blackened timber at the jumbled ruins of the Blue Song house, and leaned over it, retching. He began a chant in Hebrew as Justis laid little Sallie by her father. Sam kept his religion a secret from the people over in town, but now he let the odd, melodic words of it ring out. Justis had no idea what the words meant, but he found them soothing.

He covered Sallie’s head with the sleeve of his shirt. "That’s the best I can do for her right now, old friend,” he whispered to her father’s corpse. He sat down beside Jesse Blue Song and gazed sadly at the bronzed face capped by inky black hair. Jesse had kept his hair cropped short because he wanted everyone to know that he was as civilized as any white man. Intelligence and kindness had given him a dignity that few people, of any color, possessed.

"You outdid ’em, friend,” Justis told him hoarsely. "And the sons of bitches couldn’t stand it.”

He gently tugged a folded packet of paper from the pocket of the Cherokee’s bloodstained shirt. Opening it, Justis squinted at the delicate, beautiful handwriting. Shock poured through him.

Dear Papa and Mama, I dreamed about home again. After more than six years away—forever, it seems to me—I still see the beloved mountains so clearly, and all of your dear faces. I can stand this dreadful loneliness no longer.

Justis read on, shaking his head in frustration when he came to long passages written in Cherokee, frowning when he couldn’t make sense of the parts written in formal English. Jesse’s eldest daughter had more education than anybody he knew.

He waved the letter in the air. "Sam, come read this and tell me what this gal’s trying to say. She doesn’t use many words less than a foot long.”

Sam took the letter and read it anxiously. The breath soughed out of him. "She’s had some sort of falling out with her guardian in Philadelphia, she’s homesick, she’s given the rest of her bank account to a maidser­vant who’s needy, and she’s worried over newspaper rumors about the Cherokees being forced to give up their land.”

Sam handed him the letter. "In short, my friend, she’s broke and she’s coming home. Judging by the date of this letter, she’ll arrive any day now.”

Justis stared grimly at his business partner. He’d never met the eld­est Blue Song daughter—she’d already been sent up north to get an education when he arrived in Cherokee country six years before. Shak­ing his head, he cursed softly. "The army’s fixin’ to kick her tribe clear across the Mississippi. She hasn’t got a home anymore.”

Justis looked around at the Blue Song place and swallowed harshly. He owned it now.

"What are you going to do?” Sam asked.

Justis slowly lowered his gaze to Jesse Blue Song’s body. Jesse had led him to a fortune in gold and treated him like a son. There was only one way to pay him back.

Justis closed the dark, unseeing eyes. "I’ll keep her with me and take care of her no matter what,” he promised softly. "I swear it.”

KATHERINE BLUE Song sat properly with her head up and shoulders back, but she thought her spine would snap if the carriage bounced over one more rut in the trail. Either that or she’d crack her head on the coach’s low ceiling. The trail was worse than she remembered, just a pair of wagon tracks in the hard Georgia clay.

It was such a typical Georgia road that she began laughing. She loved the terrible road, every inch of it. She loved the unbroken blue-green hills on either side, and the smoky mist that filled the valleys in the afternoons, and the little creeks that leapt through the ravines. They belonged to Cherokees, had belonged to them for generations, and she was going home.

Home. She gazed happily out the carriage’s window. It would be only an hour or two more.

Katherine heard the hogs approaching before she smelled them. The sound was amazing, like a grunting, snuffling army. They topped a grassy rise, hundreds of them, and fanned out across the wagon trail. She grasped the window ledge and looked out in amazement while with a bellow of dismay her driver tugged his horses to a stop. The coach rocked as the hogs swarmed around it and under it.

Katherine peered down and hogs peered up. What in the world could anybody need with this sea of pork, she wondered. She knew there were many more people living in the Nation now, but this herd would feed thousands.

"These barnyard bungholers wanta rest a spell!” a loud male voice called out. Katherine arched a raven-black brow at the coarse language and watched as several scruffy drovers ambled over the rise. One of them led a pack mule; the others swung tall, stout poles, prodding the hogs as they went.

"Clear the road!” Katherine’s driver yelled.

"Get offen that coach and try to make me, you ugly mule arse!” came the reply, along with a loud chorus of guffaws.

The driver snapped his whip. "I got me a lady here! Hold your tongues!”

"A lady!”

Katherine watched as the drovers jerked their floppy felt hats off and trudged toward her. Their quick change of attitude looked sincere. But when they pushed their grizzled, sweaty faces into the windows on one side of the coach, shock filled their eyes and politeness fled.

"A Injun!”

"In a fancy dress!”

"Cain’t be! I never saw a squaw dressed thisaway!”

"A good-lookin’ savage, ain’t she?”

Katherine drew herself up so tightly, the fear churning in her stom­ach had no place to go. People in Philadelphia might disapprove of her or call her names, but they did it behind her back. She wasn’t used to this kind of blatant scrutiny with its insulting undertone.

"Good afternoon, gentlemen,” she said evenly.

"She speaks real good English,” one of the drovers said in awe.

"Some of ’em do. She must be one of them missionary-taught squaws.”

Katherine folded her hands on her lap and clenched the fingers tightly. "I’m on my way home, sirs. My family has a farm near the town your people call Gold Ridge. My father is the chief in this district. Would you allow my driver to proceed?”

They gaped at her. "I’ve heard about Cherokees like this ’un,” one drover told the others solemnly, and Katherine suddenly realized he wasn’t trying to insult her. He was just stating the facts as he saw them. "Mostly they’re mixed-bloods. Some’re almost as civilized as white folks.” He studied her face. "But damn, this ’un is a full-blood.”

Gritting her teeth, Katherine picked up a small silver-gray umbrella that matched her skirt and rapped on the coach’s ceiling. "Go ahead, Mr. Bingham, please.” She met the drovers’ curious stares and said coolly, "I’m afraid I don’t have any more time to chat.”

Mr. Bingham called down weakly, "Miss Blue Song, you oughten to be so quick with these boys.”

Katherine heard the fear in his voice and knew with sinking dread that the driver—hired up in Nashville for his respectability, not his tough­ness—would be of no help.

"Come on out,” one of the drovers ordered, his gaze darting over the snug black bodice of her dress. "Let us have a look at you. We ain’t never seen a squaw like you before, that’s all.”

"No, thank you. I’m not an exhibit for the entertainment of rude men.”

"Get out,” another said curtly.

"Miss Blue Song, they just want to take a gander at you,” Mr. Bingham squeaked.

Katherine eyed the drovers for a second, considered her options, then opened a bulky black satchel by her feet and reached into a box of surgical implements.

The drovers moved back a little, forming a semicircle to keep the hogs away, then pulled the coach’s door open. Katherine stood, fluffed her skirt, and stepped to the hard-packed ground. She concealed a ra­zor-sharp scalpel in her right hand.

"Lord, what a beauty,” one man breathed.

"Kinda skinny and tall. A little long in the tooth too,” another com­plained.

"Nah. How old be ya, sister?”

Katherine quivered with rage. "Twenty.”

"Not too old to keep a man plenty warm at night.”

"Is this the way you always talk in front of ladies?” she asked.

A stream of tobacco juice barely missed the toe of her shoe. "Ain’t no such thing as an Injun lady.”

A man stepped closer to her. "My wife shore would like this dress. Why don’t you shuck it off?”

"Don’t touch me.”

He grinned and grabbed a handful of the skirt. The man was near enough that Katherine barely had to move. She simply lifted her hand and made a quick, skillful movement across his arm.

"She cut me!” he yelped. Hogs squealed at the smell of blood. The drovers stared at their injured companion in openmouthed surprise, then at her. Katherine slashed again as another man reached for her. He stumbled back, his forehead bleeding profusely. "She’s trying to scalp me!”

"Now, really, you men calm down,” Mr. Bingham begged. "She’s no savage.”

"Get that damned knife outer her hand!”

Katherine swung again, and a drover grabbed her wrist. He squeezed painfully. "Let go of that cuttin’ piece.”

Panic grew inside Katherine’s chest. "My father will have you in jail before sundown!”

"Squaw, you’re plumb crazy.” He wrenched her arm a little and still she refused to drop the knife. "If we weren’t gents, we’d strip that dress off you and haul you into the woods for an hour or two.”

"You would regret that.” She lashed a sharp-toed shoe into her cap­tor’s knee, and he howled.

"That done it! Grab her, boys!”

Mr. Bingham gasped and began flailing the drovers with his whip. One man grabbed her around the waist and another sank his fingers into her throat. Katherine jerked her fighting hand free and swung the scalpel wildly, hearing curses when it connected.

In the midst of struggling she suddenly heard something else—a deep, resonant thud, the sound of wood hitting a skull. A drover slumped to the ground, then another, and she realized that someone new had waded into the bunch, swinging one of the drovers’ own wooden staffs.

The men let go of her and backed away, shielding their heads and squalling oaths. Katherine stumbled on a wagon rut and grabbed the coach door for balance. Dust rose off the trail in a thick cloud. The hogs scattered in every direction.

The devil was loose in the middle of hell, and she could only watch in amazement.

The newcomer was lean and tall, but he had the shoulders of a prime bull and the strength to match. His big-knuckled hand brushed a shapeless, wide-brimmed hat off his head. Dust swirled around shaggy hair the dark, rich color of chestnut. Under a thick mustache, his mouth curved into a lethal smile.

Now, apparently, he was ready to do serious battle with the drovers. She stared at the newcomer as he punched one drover in the head and swung about gracefully to kick another between the legs. Katherine covered her nose to keep from choking on dust and excitement. Her rescuer, if that was who the devil was, began uttering inventive and filthy curses in a deep, drawling voice.

When only one drover was left standing, he jerked a pearl-handled pistol from his belt and leveled it at the drover’s forehead. "Get your asses and your hogs outta my sight,” he warned in a deadly tone. "And if you’re takin’ ’em to Gold Ridge, keep your goddamned selves out of my sight there too. You hear anybody say ‘Justis Gallatin,’ you tuck tail and run, or you’re dead. Understand?”

"Yeah.”

"Yes, sir,” Justis Gallatin corrected the drover.

"Yes, sir.”

Katherine wiped perspiration from her forehead and tried to catch her breath. She barely noticed as the drovers staggered off without look­ing back, taking their hogs with them. She was too busy studying Justis Gallatin.

He stood with his booted feet braced apart, a rangy chestnut wolf guarding his territory, his eyes never leaving the drovers, his arm bent lazily so that the pistol pointed upward, ready to be leveled again if need be. His dark trousers were rusty with dust, and his loose white work shirt had turned a pinkish color.

He wore a wide belt with a gold buckle, and tucked into it was an­other pearl-handled pistol, plus two large knives sheathed in leather scabbards. His shirt was unbuttoned halfway down his chest, revealing a thickly haired expanse and a gold nugget hanging from a leather string.

A gold miner, she thought suddenly. Her father had said they were all over the place now. And most were mean-tempered thieves, not to be trusted.

This one might be no better. She stared at his drooping mustache. No gentleman wore hair on his face. She couldn’t recall when she’d seen such a hearty growth of hair on a man’s upper lip, and it was as intriguing as it was shocking.

She must be overstimulated from fear. Swaying, she nearly fell back­ward into the coach.

Sometimes she saw things in her mind, and then they came true.

Katherine shook her head ruefully and began to sweep the dust from her skirt. She still held her scalpel and glanced at it, distractedly noting that blood had run onto her fingers. At least it wasn’t her blood. She smiled.

"Smiling. Lord, she’s smiling. If I live to be old and toothless, I’ll never see the likes of this again.”

The rich, teasing drawl made her look up warily. Justis Gallatin headed toward her, grabbing his hat from the ground and tucking his pistol back into his belt as he walked, his gaze never wavering from a head-to-foot study of her.

Katherine froze, her body on alert in strange ways she didn’t have time to analyze. He was a big man, tall and powerful, with corded arms that looked as if they could squeeze a bear to death, and legs that glided along in an easy cadence.

He walks like one of my people, she thought. Silent, graceful. A woman wouldn’t hear him slip into her room, but once he was there, she wouldn’t want him to leave.

"Thank you for your assistance,” she said formally, and waited for him to stop a polite distance away.

He didn’t. He strolled right up to her, coming to a halt so close that she felt threatened by the potently masculine smells of sweat and dust and leather. Then he licked one forefinger and brushed the tip of her nose with it. The finger came away covered in damp red dirt.

"You okay under that war paint?” he asked gruffly.

She stared up into a youthful face already tending toward rugged squint lines and creases, thick, wickedly arched eyebrows, eyes the color of new green leaves, and that infernal mustache.

"I’m unhurt, thank you, sir. Thank you very much.”

Mr. Bingham hung over the side of his seat atop the coach, watch­ing them. "I’m sure sorry about all of this mess, Miss Blue Song.”

She forced her gaze up to the driver’s. "Are those drovers typical of the men roaming the woods in Cherokee country now?”

"Yes’m.”

"My father will send the Lighthorse patrol after them.”

"Nope,” Justis Gallatin interjected.

She swiveled her gaze to the man, who was now watching her with a different kind of intensity that made her feel increasingly uncomforta­ble. His eyes drooped a little at the corners, giving him a sleepy, satiated expression when he smiled. But he wasn’t smiling now—he seemed far from it—and his hooded scrutiny was guarded, perhaps even angry.

"What do you mean, sir?”

"There’s no more Cherokee courts. The state of Georgia took over the law a few years ago. I figured your folks wrote you about it.”

"I read about it in the Philadelphia paper. But my father said it wasn’t so.” She frowned. "My name’s Katherine—Miss Blue Song. Do you know my family?”

He hesitated, his wide, generous mouth tightening under the mus­tache. Then he said, "Your pa sent me to meet you on the road. I’ve been waiting for you the past week.” The green eyes were shuttered now, half closed. "He’s working a new field and couldn’t come himself, but he was a little worried that you’d run into trouble—just like you did.”

She tilted her head and looked at him curiously. "You’re employed by my father?”

"No. Friend of his.”

"Your name is Mr. Gallatin, is that right?”

"Justis Gallatin.”

She inched back in wary consideration. "My father wouldn’t send a stranger. This isn’t like him.”

"Lots of things have changed since you went north.” Abruptly he took the scalpel from her hand. "Never seen anything like it,” he said again. "Swiping at those boys like a cat with one mean claw. Damned good.” He pulled her hand to him, jerked the long tail of his shirt from his trousers, and wiped her bloody fingers.

Katherine was angered by his familiarity, surprised by the gentle­ness in his big, lethal hands, and flushed from the thought that her fin­gers were being cleaned by material that had recently been tucked against his thighs—and more.

"You obviously share the drovers’ opinion of me,” she said in a crisp but genteel tone. It had taken years of practice at the Presbyterian Academy for Young Ladies to acquire that soft, ice-cold voice.

He stopped ministering to her fingers and looked up in surprise. "Huh?”

"You wouldn’t be so forward with a white woman,” she said, pull­ing her hand away.

He frowned, sincerely puzzled. "Yes, I would.”

"Well, that’s honest.”

Amused despite herself, Katherine pivoted gracefully and climbed back into the coach. Dust puffed around her as she sat. Her heart still thudded painfully from the encounter with the drovers, and she wasn’t in any mood for Mr. Gallatin’s unsettling brand of chivalry.

"You may ride along behind the coach if you like,” she told him. "And when we arrive at my home, you’ll be welcome to stay for supper.”

She tried to ignore the anger rising in his face and nodded toward the huge gray horse that waited beside the road. Its gear gleamed with care, and there was gold plating on the bridle. "Close the coach door and go to your mount, sir,” she ordered as calmly as she could.

"I’m not some hired jerktail you can steer any way you like. I told you, I’m a friend of your pa’s.”

She raised her chin and stared stubbornly at a speck of peeling paint on the coach’s inner wall. "My father doesn’t have many white friends, and he never mentioned you in his letters.”

"Be that as it may. Don’t take on airs. You’re in no position to be choosy.”

"I appreciate your help, Mr. Gallatin, but your manners leave a lot to be desired.”

"Yes’m, I know, but you’d better get used to ’em.” With that unset­tling remark he turned and whistled for his horse.

Katherine watched in consternation as he tied the horse to the back of the coach. Then he climbed in and sat down, pressing himself close to her in the narrow seat, his shoulder and thigh firmly welded to hers. The intimate contact made her feel like covering her torso with both arms, as if he had just undressed her. He flicked the door shut with a quick move­ment of one long arm.

"Move on, Mr. Bing-ham,” he called loudly. "And make it fast.”

The coach lurched forward just as Katherine, quietly furious, rose to move to the seat facing him. She tottered and he latched one hand into the back of her skirt. Through skirt, petticoat, and drawers she felt his fingers brush her hips. She’d never been touched by any man there, much less a white, mustached gold miner.

She twisted around, wrung the skirt from his grip, and saw from the gleam in his eye that he knew exactly what he’d done. She sat down hard on the opposite bench, and dust poofed up like some kind of boudoir powder she’d used too liberally. He grinned.

"Give me my scalpel, sir,” she said. He had tucked it behind his ear.

"I don’t attack women, Katie. I coax ’em. Rest easy.”

"It’s Miss Blue Song.

He looked down, saw her satchel, and dropped the knife into it. "Who’s the sawbones?”

"I am.”

The disbelieving look he gave her was no more than she expected. "A lady doctor?”

"Not certified in any way, of course. But then, there are quite a few men practicing medicine who have no claim to formal training at all.”

"There’s no such thing as a lady doctor. Nobody’d teach you.”

Katherine smiled grimly. She’d have to put up with this blunt rascal only until she reached home. "If you’re an Indian, people don’t expect you to act like a lady. They aren’t shocked when you do eccentric things.”

"But what doctor had the gumption to risk his reputation by trainin’ you?”

"My guardian in Philadelphia, Dr. Henry Ledbetter. A friend of my father’s. Dr. Ledbetter is a progressive. He let me assist him—with fe­male patients only, of course.”

"Oh. You’re a midwife, then.”

"No, I’m a doctor. I don’t see why not.”

He thought for a second. "Well, I reckon I don’t see why not nei­ther.”

To her surprise, Katherine found sincere admiration in his eyes. Then he gave her a solemn, lopsided squint. "But you got enough trou­ble just bein’ an Injun. Don’t tell people you’re a Yankee free thinker too.”

She took several slow breaths, a technique that always served her well, then gave him a hard look. "Sir, get out of my coach and ride be­hind it.”

He shrugged his answer and picked up the slender leather-bound book he’d wedged into a corner when he sat down. Though he tried to be nonchalant, from the way he frowned at the title she doubted he could figure it out. Not many people in these regions could read or write.

"Romeo and Juliet,” she offered with a polite smile.

"Shakespeare, huh?” He nodded smugly, a gleam of triumph in his eye. "I saw it acted once, down in Savannah. A boy played Juliet. Romeo couldn’t marry him, so he killed himself. Seemed unreasonable to me.” He tossed the book down. "Waste of time.”

"How nice. You saw a play once. With a little more culture you’d reach the level of a barbarian.”

His eyes snapped. "You didn’t care about my lack of culture when I was savin’ you from those hog-kissers.”

Remorse mingled with undeniable gratitude. "Mr. Gallatin, you’re en­tirely right. I apologize for offending you. You saved my honor, and possibly my life. And you risked your own safety to do it.”

He frowned, studying her raptly, then said in a slow, thoughtful tone, "I guess I’ve rescued myself a real lady. The kind that makes a man want to fight dragons for her.”

A shiver ran down her spine. Had she discovered some remarkable brand of backwoods cavalier, a white man and gold miner who fancied himself a crusading knight? He leaned forward, spit on his fingertips, and began cleaning her face. She drew back so quickly, her head thumped the coach’s wall.

"Sir!”

"Easy, gal, easy. Katie Blue Song, full of vinegar.”

He pulled a handkerchief from his trouser pocket, took her chin in one hand, and went on about his cleaning while she sat in transfixed silence.

"You and those drovers,” he murmured, shaking his head. "I never saw a woman defend herself with so much courage before. Not a squeak, not a tear, just laid into ’em. Weren’t you scared at all?”

"Certainly.” The heel of his hand brushed her cheek; his fingertips outlined every bone in her face, or so it felt. Katherine had never cast her gaze down before any man before, but now she did it to keep from studying him with the same fascination he directed toward her.

"I’ll be damned,” he said in his low, breath-stealing way. "I knew that Jesse and Mary had three pretty daughters, ’cause I saw ’em each time they came home from the mission school up in Tennessee. But I never figured the fourth one was the prize.”

In her mind’s eye Katherine saw the slow, easy journey of a man’s hand along the length of her bare stomach, and then lower. She knew exactly whose hand it was. No.There was no way that could come true.

She twisted her face away from Justis Gallatin’s touch. "If you’re re­ally a friend of my father’s, why are you trying to trifle with me?”

"When you’ve got a lot of gold, you don’t trifle with women,” he told her solemnly. "You lure ’em into wicked, wicked sin, just like the dime novels say.”

"You have no manners or education, but you do have a lot of gold. So you think gold gives you the right to do as you please.”

He sat back, propped one foot on the opposite knee, and smiled calmly. "Done some mining. Done all right at it. Now I’m trying to get respectable. Or at least learn to act respectable.”

"You’ve mined Cherokee land—stolen from it—just like all the other white men.”

He looked out the window, and his jaw worked a little. She could al­most see the tension rising in him, and it made the coach feel much too small for the two of them.

"Your pa’s one of the best friends I ever had... have,” he said fi­nally, still staring out the window. "I’ve mined his land, but I’ve put half of the profits aside for whenever he wants to claim ’em.”

Shock sliced her breath in two. Her father had never been inter­ested in large-scale mining, and especially not with a white man as part­ner. He and her mother had scooped gold out of the creeks occasion­ally—Cherokees had traded gold among themselves for centuries—but they had kept the locations secret. They knew that showing them to white men would only cause trouble.

"My father would never willingly help a white man find Cherokee gold.”

"Times have changed, I keep tellin’ you. Your father changed.” He gestured impatiently. "Look, gal, it wasn’t no big deal, all right? I set up a dredge on a little bitty creek in the middle of the woods. Closed the operation down when the vein ran out three years ago. ’Cept for some piles of dirt, you can’t hardly tell anybody was there. Now I got me a big mine in the hills east of town.”

"Not far from a little spring surrounded by laurel?”

He looked at her cautiously. "Yeah.”

"My parents were the only people who knew about that spot! They led you there. Admit it.”

He swore under his breath. "All right. But half the profits from that mine was... are theirs too. Waitin’ to be claimed.”

Katherine tried not to raise her voice, but she felt angry and con­fused. "Why haven’t they claimed them already?”

"Too risky. It’s illegal for Cherokee and white to have a business deal.”

"What?Are you saying that everything I’ve read is true? The Georgia courts are trying to force us out?”

He gazed steadily at her, his expression tight and hard. "Times have changed a lot since you went off to Philadelphia, gal.”

She clenched her hands into fists. "Mr. Gallatin, if you say that to me one more time—”

"Hullo,” Mr. Bingham called. He pulled the horses up. "Miss Blue Song, is this the road toward your homeplace?”

Katherine grasped the edge of the coach window and looked out. Eve­rything else was forgotten as she gazed lovingly at the wagon trail that disappeared into shadowy forest. "It is, sir, it is. Turn onto it, Mr. Bingham!”

Justis Gallatin called out. "Whoa, Bing-ham! Straight on, to Gold Ridge.”

Katherine looked at him in exasperation. "I have no business to con­duct among a passel of log cabins filled with gold miners.”

"Your pa said for you to meet him there.”

"But my mother and sisters are at home.”

"I was told to make sure you went into town and waited for Jesse there. Don’t cause me any trouble. You’re goin’ to town.”

He spoke with an authority that stunned her. Gone was the teasing rogue, and in his place was a man who gave commands easily and ex­pected them to be obeyed.

Katherine straightened, feeling angry but also worried. "What’s the truth? Tell me. Please.”

Shaking his head in consternation, he leaned forward and took her hands. "I’m sorry for snappin’ at you. Your pa just wants to surprise you, that’s all.” Now the voice was friendly again, the eyes reassuring. "Don’t make me ruin it by telling you.”

She exhaled slowly but couldn’t relax as long as his thumbs moved in slow circles across her palms. "I’ll have to have a talk with my father about his choice of messengers. You’re not very good at presenting surprises. And stop tickling me.”

"I like to make a Cherokee gal blush. It takes more work, but when it happens, a man knows he’s really done something right.”

Katherine realized that her face was burning. She pulled her hands away and rapped on the coach wall. "Onward, Mr. Bingham. To Gold Ridge, where a secret awaits.”

Justis Gallatin lounged back in his seat and nodded with satisfac­tion. It puzzled her that for just a moment he looked so sad.


 

 

Chapter 2

JUSTIS ASKED ENOUGH polite questions to get her loosened up and talking without his help. She was still unnerved from the business with the drovers, and seemed grateful for any diversion. So he got her to tell him about railroad trains, something hardly anyone outside a big city had seen.

Her talking left him free to curse his situation silently. What was he going to do with her? And how could he tell her that she had no family, no home, and no money other than what few dollars she might be carry­ing in the little satin purse anchored to the waist of her dress?

She was part of a doomed tribe, and he couldn’t change that. In this part of Georgia, as in the states bordering it, the new settlers had long ago given up talk about sharing the land with Indians. Get the dark-skinned devils out and take the country God meant for white folks to own, they said.

Most of the tribe still hung on to the old ways, spurning the mission­ary schools, avoiding the whites whenever possible, keeping to the riverside villages and little farms tucked deep in the hills. Justis couldn’t help but admire their stubborn pride and independence. Katherine Blue Song’s feisty nature didn’t really surprise him. She was one of the Principle People, and ages earlier the Great Spirit had told the whole world to kowtow to her tribe.

Their lives were part of the land, and the ancient place-names had been born in the lilting songs of wind and water—Etowah, Chestatee, Chattooga, Hiwassee. Justis could only maul the names with a stiff tongue.

But at least he respected them. Most people thereabouts were dis­gusted with the Indians for hanging on so hard, especially those who had adopted white ways, built prosperous businesses, and traded their war cries for fancy arguments supported by white laws.

You mean them Injuns wrote up a constitution that calls their hunting grounds a nation? You sayin’ that they started a newspaper—a newspaper with that bastard scribble they use for writing? And they had the gall to send chiefs to Washington City to tell the President of these United States that his treaties weren’t no good? Lord have mercy, what kind of uppity notions will they get next?

Justis watched Katherine Blue Song and felt a dull ache in his chest. Even if she were white she’d never fit in anywhere. She had too much education for a woman, not to mention that odd idea about being a doctor. Hell, if he had his way, she could doctor everybody from here to the Mississippi, but few folks in Gold Ridge would agree.

It would’ve been better if Jesse and Mary had sent her to the mis­sion school in Tennessee like their other daughters. The missionaries wouldn’t have let her get dangerous ideas, and they sure wouldn’t have turned her into someone so refined that every woman in Gold Ridge would feel jealous.

Justis forced himself to stop looking at her. He stared out the win­dow and thought, Refined and beautiful, but it’d be easy to stir up the fire behind those black eyes.

What else did he want from her? Good Lord, what he was thinking added up to a helluva lot more than a woman like Katie Blue Song would ever give to a slap-hazard renegade like him. He had grown up in a world that demanded he fight for his survival; she had been raised like some kind of royalty.

How would she feel when she learned that he owned the Blue Song place? And where could he send her so that she’d be safe from men like those damned drovers? And if he didn’t send her away, how long would it be before he got her into his bed?

Not long, if he could help it. He admitted that too.

"Mr. Gallatin?”

Justis looked back at her. She had her head tilted to one side, and her deep-set eyes examined him from beneath a luxurious ruffle of lashes. He caught his breath.

"Yeah?”

"You were rubbing your neck and frowning. Are you too hot?”

He laughed softly. He was way too hot, and if he told her why, she’d get the scalpel out again.

"I’m fine, thanks.” He caught the edge of her skirt and idly fingered the shiny gray satin. "Lady like you belongs back in Philadelphia.”

"No, I’ve come home for good.”

When he saw the happy anticipation in her face, he almost choked. "Frontier’s going to be mighty boring after a big city.”

She smiled and shook her head, then nodded toward the window. "This land’s in my blood. When I was little, my mother fed me a spoon­ful of soil mixed into some corn mush. She said the land was part of me now, and I’d never stop loving it.”

He grimaced. "What kind of husband are you gonna find around here? Some buckskinned feller with a log shanty back in the woods? Nah, you wouldn’t be satisfied.”

She raised her chin and said calmly, "That’s no problem, Mr. Gallatin. I don’t intend to marry.”

More odd notions. She had a ripe, dusky pink mouth that ought never to be wasted on such talk. "You’ll marry,” he told her with con­fi­dence.

"I won’t. I swear it. I’ll be owned by no one but myself.”

He tugged playfully at her skirt. "I bet some pearly-faced dandy up in Philadelphia broke your heart and busted your pride. Told you he wouldn’t marry an Injun gal.” Justis paused. "He allowed that he might fancy you as a mistress, though. Hmmm?”

The quick flare in her eyes told him that he was probably right. "I’m certain that you could write sonnets about romance, Mr. Gallatin, but I’d prefer not to hear your opinions. I assume you’re not married.”

"Not yet. Been plannin’ on it for some time, though.”

"Oh?” she said quickly. "Are you betrothed to one of the local she-bears?”

He laughed again. "I’m an important man hereabouts. Got ambi­tions to be more important, and I need the right kind of wife to make me look respectable. I might even go up to New York and hunt for one in high society.”

"Trap one,” she corrected him dryly.

He grinned, fascinated by her. Behind that sweet smile was a sharp tongue. He’d wager that six years in Philadelphia hadn’t tamed the free spirit of a Cherokee upbringing.

"Your mama told me how you ran buck-wild when you were little,” he said cheerfully. "Said you got into more trouble than a Cherokee elf. I disremember the details, but there was a story about a big powwow, some sort of festival. Seems little Katie had a girl-size blowgun for hunt­ing rabbits, but she went huntin’ trouble instead. Slipped into the woods and snuck up on an old chief and his wife who were enjoyin’ a particular sort of entertainment at the moment...”

"My mother told you that?”

"Gospel truth.” He solemnly held up a hand. "She said you made that old chief nervous for the rest of the festival.”

Her mouth crooked up at one corner. "I’ll have to speak to my mother about her tall tales.”

"She was... she’s a fine woman, your mother.”

"Yes.” Nodding, Katherine smiled pensively. "I’ve missed her so much. I wanted to come home a long time ago, but she and Papa wouldn’t let me.”

Justis knew why—they’d have gone crazy worrying about her safety. Jesse and Mary had feared for their other three daughters as well, and that was why the girls had all been enrolled up at the mission school in Tennessee. If they hadn’t come home to visit, they’d still be alive.

Justis cleared his throat and pointed out the window. "Look. We’re on the edge of town.”

She clasped the window ledge and gazed out intently. "The creek’s nothing but a ditch between mounds of dirt! Somebody cut down all the trees! There are stumps everywhere! And all those shanties—how many people live in Gold Ridge now?”

"About five thousand,” he said carefully, watching her reaction.

Stunned, she was silent for several minutes, studying the ugly over­flow of a booming gold town. Pigs and chickens roamed among the shanties, searching for food through piles of garbage. Men sat on canvas stools, using tree stumps for tables as they played cards or drank from umber-colored bottles.

A few women and children squatted around campfires, waving away flies in the warm April sun. Between two lopsided tents a pair of men punched at each other drunkenly until one fell backward and brought his home down in a heap around him.

Finally Katherine turned away, her face drawn with worry. "Is it all like this?”

"Nah, there’s a real nice square with a new brick courthouse. Got some decent homes, couple of churches, some respectable hotels. That’s where we’re going—to a hotel just off the square.”

She unpinned a pearl brooch from her bodice and took the hand­ker­chief that it had held. Dusting herself delicately, her eyes clouded with thought, she murmured, "What do all these new people think of their Cherokee hosts?”

Justis was saved from answering that question when a man trotted his fat bay horse alongside the coach. Slouched over the saddle, his white coat flopping in rhythm with the brim of his white hat, he tried to steer his mount, smile, and stick his face as close to the coach window as possible.

"Welcome to Gold Ridge, mister,” he said to Justis. "You need land? I got land bought directly from those lucky souls who won it in the lottery. Forty-acre gold lots, hundred-and-sixty-acre farm lots, some with improvements the Injuns made on ’em. Good prices—Well, I’ll be damned!”

He stared at Katherine, then looked back at Justis. "You taking this squaw to one of the cathouses? Which one?”

By the time Katherine’s sharp gasp hit the air, Justis was already lean­ing out the window, and a second later he’d jabbed the barrel of his pistol into the man’s fleshy throat. With a squeak of alarm the man reined his horse around and galloped back toward the shanties. Justis swore softly as he settled back in his seat and put the gun away. He finally looked at Katherine and saw the horror in her expression.

"These people really believe that they can have Cherokee land and an­ything else they want,” she said with soft torment. "They’re convinced of it.”

Justis sighed. She looked so stricken, he reached over and cupped her face in both hands. Her skin felt fantastically smooth to his callused fingers, and desperation gave her eyes a wide, limpid appeal that sank into him like a knife. She might be tough, but she was scared too.

"Everything’s gonna be just fine, Katie,” he said soothingly. Then, telling himself that he needed to distract her from further questions, he kissed her lightly on the mouth. She tasted like sweet cologne and dusty sweat, a unique combination that he found wildly provocative.

His mouth brushed hers again. "You stick with me, Katie, and I’ll fight any man who looks crossways at you.”

She had hypnotized him so deeply that the shock in her face flew past him along with its quick merger into pure rage. Her left hand shoved him back as her right hand slammed into his jaw. "How dare you,” she said in a low voice.

He sat back, nodding. "Fair enough.”

"Hullo, down there,” Mr. Bingham yelled. "Where to in town?”

Justis stuck his head out the window. "The Gallatin-Kirkland Ho­tel. It’s on the edge of the square.”

"TheGallatin-Kirkland Hotel?” she repeated. With her handkerchief she scrubbed her mouth, the gesture fierce and hardly demure, while her dark eyes stabbed him.

"Me and my business partner own it,” Justis explained. "Sam Kirkland. He and his wife live there.”

"Whatelse do you own in the Cherokee Nation?”

"Besides the mine I already told you about, a store, a stable, and a sa­loon.” Plus two hundred acres of the prettiest land in this part of the state. Blue Song land.

She arched a black brow. "Is there anything left for anyone else to own?”

"Plenty.” He pointed. "Take a look-see. Yo, Bing-ham! Take us around the courthouse once!”

The coach rolled into a neatly kept square, at the center of which stood a majestic two-story brick building with a pair of white colonnades framing the entrance. Saddle horses and mules hitched to heavy wagons stood lazily in the shade of a massive oak tree by the courthouse steps.

"The bricks were made by a local man,” Justis told her proudly. "There’s flecks of gold in ’em. And after it rains hard, you can go out in the street and pan nearly a pennyweight. There are fortunes just waitin’ to be found here.”

"I want to see my parents immediately,” she said between gritted teeth. "I’ve heard enough about your greed. You obviously can’t control your appetites.”

He sighed and said nothing.

The buildings around the square were a variety of styles, everything from an old log cabin to clapboard stores with canvas awnings and nicely painted houses complete with rocking chairs on the porches. Even though the sun had barely reached noon, raucous piano music filtered out the open doors of the Buzzard’s Roost Dance Hall and sev­eral similar establishments nearby. A half-dozen drunks lay in the alleyway between the rather grand Gallatin-Kirkland Saloon and the ramshackle Golden Lady Billiards Emporium. They were piled up like sleeping puppies. Flies circled them in the shadows.

Men hunkered around dice games on the porches and in the street. A mud-covered gent in overalls danced a jig with a woman wearing an overstuffed carmine-red dress, the perfect color to match her hair. They had no musical accompaniment, at least not any that matched the rhythm of their feet. They did, however, have a nanny goat and her nursing kid for an audience.

A wide variety of people traveled the street—miners carrying pans, picks, and shovels; businessmen in snug cutaway coats and top hats; barefoot farmers wearing coarse homespun; women in gingham and women in silk. They had one thing in common—except for a black slave or two, they were all white and seemed very much at home.

"Did you hear me?” she said, her voice rising. "Where are my par­ents?”

"I heard. We’re getting there.”

"Why didn’t they write me about this despicable town?”

Justis shrugged elaborately. "It was hard for them to put into words, I reckon. And they didn’t want you to get worried and come home.”

"I demand that you send someone for my father right now.”

"You bet.”

I’ll tell her the truth as soon as we get inside the hotel. He wasn’t very good with words and even worse with hysterical women.

Mr. Bingham finished his circuit and headed off the square toward a handsome white building set not far from where thick forest closed in on a trail leading out of town. Double galleries ran across the top and bottom levels, flowers formed a colorful border out front, and a small garden flourished beyond the limbs of a stately beech tree near one side of the building. A sign hung from the edge of the bottom gallery, with "Gallatin-Kirkland Hotel, Est. 1835” scrolled in large gilt letters.

Dread pooled in Justis’s stomach as he stepped from the coach. Bingham jumped down and went to remove Katherine’s trunks at the rear. Justis followed him there.

"You been paid in full?”

"Yes, sir. Miss Blue Song took care of it in Nashville a few days ago. Look, I don’t feel right, going off and leaving her with strangers...”

"Here.” Justis planted a ten-dollar gold piece in Bingham’s hand. "Get going soon as you unload. I’ll take care of her from now on.”

When the driver looked at the coin his eyes bugged. "Yes, sir.”

Justis heard a sound and strode to the coach door too late to do more than watch Katherine shut the door behind herself. She looked around anxiously while she set a black bonnet over her hair.

"Don’t wear that thing,” he told her. "Makes it hard to see you.”

She peered at him from under the bonnet, her face like the center of a darkly exotic flower. "I just want to be ready when my father gets here.”

"You think he’s gonna know by magic the second you set foot on the ground in Gold Ridge?”

"Perhaps.” She removed the bonnet and gave him an icy stare.

"Mr. Justis! Is this the Injun?”

A robust black boy, barefoot and shirtless but dressed in good trou­sers, ran up and grabbed Justis’s hand, then gazed at Katherine in awe.

"This is Miss Blue Song.” Justis shifted awkwardly. Introductions were one of many social graces he hadn’t mastered yet. He gestured from Katherine to the boy. "Meet Noah.”

She could have ignored the boy, nodded silently to him, or re­proached Justis for introducing her to a house servant. Any of the three would have been acceptable. Instead, she smiled gently and said, "How do you do, Noah?”

Justis watched her with a troubled heart. She is a real lady, he thought, and after that kiss he knew he’d do whatever it took to keep her.

Noah ducked his head in a vague sort of bow. "You be an orphan like me, huh?”

Damn.

"I beg your pardon?” she said.

Justis hurried him to the stallion pawing impatiently at the back of the coach and shoved the reins in his hands, along with a nickel. "You take Watchman over to the stables, you hear? And don’t get trampled.”

"Yessir!”

The boy left, leading the huge gray horse behind him. Katherine turned her attention from her baggage. "What did he mean by ‘or­phan’?”

"Some fool game of his. I don’t know.”

"You own him?” The disapproval was obvious in her voice.

"Yeah. But I didn’t buy him. Him and his sister were bartered for goods at the store. They were both sickly and bruised up. Wasn’t any other way I could get ’em away from their master.”

"I’m an abolitionist, Mr. Gallatin. I just want you to know that. A free-thinking abolitionist.”

Lord, why don’t she just strip naked and do a dance in the road? That couldn’t make her any more controversial than she was already. He pulled a long Spanish cigar out of the band of his hat and jabbed it between his teeth.

"I’m not really opinionated on the subject, Katie, but I don’t own slaves. When Noah and his sister are older, I plan to sign their manumis­sion papers and send ’em up north to school. Good enough?”

After a moment she said, "All right. But please don’t call me by a pet name. It’s crude. A gentleman calls me ‘Miss Blue Song.’”

Justis felt embarrassment creeping up his cheeks. One minute a smil­ing angel, the next a high-falutin’ queen. "I’m not a gentleman, Katie.”

She clamped her lips tightly together and turned away. "Just put those trunks on the veranda, please, Mr. Bingham. I won’t be here long.”

The sound of footsteps on a wooden floor heralded the appearance of Sam’s wife, her cheeks rosy from housework. She wiped her hands on a white apron as she pulled it from her calico dress. Rebecca Kirkland radiated the same wholesome sweetness as a pot of honey. She was made up of wheat-blond hair and buxom womanhood, with kind hazel eyes. When people wanted good chicken soup and tenderhearted treat­ment, they went to Rebecca. Justis had never looked at a female with brotherly affection before he met her.

"Welcome home, Miss Blue Song,” she said kindly, and held out both hands. "I’m Rebecca Kirkland. My husband and I are partners with Mr. Gallatin.” She shot an anxious look toward Justis, and he shook his head.

After a startled moment Katherine went up the steps and clasped Rebecca’s hands. "I’m sorry to intrude on you. I really don’t understand why Mr. Gallatin brought me here instead of to my family’s home. Are my parents here?”

"Her pa’s supposed to meet her,” Justis called. This had to stop. It gnawed at his insides more with each second. As soon as Bingham pulled away, he’d tell her.

White trash murdered your family. Your pa was full of bullets and the rest—well they died in other ways.

"Why don’t you fix Miss Blue Song some tea?” Justis suggested loudly. He bit his cigar in two and had to grab the front end before it fell to the ground.

NOAH AND HIS sister, Lilac, were hiding beyond the arched doorway to the parlor, and they kept peeking at her. Katherine smiled at them, but they looked sorrowful in return. Rebecca Kirkland’s hands shook each time she raised her teacup. Justis Gallatin had quickly downed two glasses of whiskey from a cupboard in the corner. Now he lounged by the marble fireplace, scowling.

Something was wrong, very wrong, and fear grew inside Katherine un­til she could barely sit still.

"You know my family well?” she asked Rebecca.

"Oh, yes.” Her smile was too wide, her voice too gay. "They trade at the store.”

"And the people from the Talachee village? Do they trade with you also?”

"They moved on a month ago,” Justis said. "Went to the Indian terri­tory out west.”

Katherine looked at him in bewilderment. "They deserted the settle­ment? They’d been there for generations.”

He cleared his throat, stared at the carpeted floor, and said finally, "Settlers claimed their land. That’s the way it is now. Since the lottery. Man shows up with a deed, Indians got to move. The treaty said so.”

"No chief of any importance signed that treaty. And it’s still being fought in Washington City.”

He slammed a hand on the mantel. "Dammit, this isn’t Washington City! It’s over, you hear? There’s nothing you or I can do to change it.”

The blood stopped in Katherine’s veins. She and Gallatin shared a long, intense gaze, and regret slowly softened his features. "I’m sorry,” he said wearily.

Her hands felt icy. She curved them around the teacup for warmth. Gazing down into the amber liquid, she tried to think. She was not ordi­narily given to nervous moods, but right now a bleak sense of doom was crawling through her stomach. "I want to go home,” she said firmly. "Right now. I have missed my family for six years.”

Rebecca made a strange noise. Katherine looked at her quickly, searching for answers. Delicate footsteps tapped on the porch, and Rebecca left the room hurriedly when someone knocked at the door.

Katherine stood and faced Justis. "Take me home.”

He struggled for a second, then shook his head. "I can’t.”

"Surely you understand my impatience to see my loved ones.”

"Nope. I’ve got no loved ones. Never have had any.”

"Oh, you’re being deliberately argumentative! Why not simply—”

"Justis, my dear, you’ve finally found her. I’m so glad.”

Katherine pivoted to find a petite young woman breezing into the parlor, voluminous pink skirts flouncing around her, her cheeks flushed just as pink, her eyes as hard as blue sapphires. A pile of beautiful red-gold hair was arranged in ringlets around her head, and her features were striking despite the thick pattern of freckles that covered most of her face.

She went to Justis, took his hands, and looked up at him sweetly. "You were terribly kind to do it.”

"Amarintha, wait,” Rebecca called frantically, following her.

"This is the poor thing,” Amarintha cooed, turning to Katherine. "You brave dear.”

Katherine’s mouth dropped open as the visitor threw both arms around her and hugged delicately, brushing a cool cheek against hers. When the woman stepped back her gaze swept over Katherine with intense appraisal.

The pink mouth tightened. "And such a fine example of what civiliza­tion can do. It’s so very tragic.”

Suddenly Justis inserted an arm between them. "Amarintha, let’s you and me step outside for a minute.”

Katherine had had enough. "Stop it.” Her fists clenched, she backed away from the group, away from Rebecca’s strained expression, the newcomer’s rather melodramatic one, and the fierceness in Justis Gallatin’s eyes as he started toward her.

"Someone tell me the truth,” she ordered.

"You mean she doesn’t know?” Amarintha asked. "No one’s told her that her whole family’s dead?”

Justis swung about and glared. "Dammit, you did that to be spite­ful!”

Katherine sagged against a chair, grasping its back. In a second Justis reached her. He latched on to her arms and held tightly, looking down at her in anguish.

"This isn’t how I wanted to break it,” he said hoarsely. "But I reck­on it’s as good a way as any.”

She stared up at him and frowned in concentration. Whole family dead. No, of course not. "Where are they, really?”

His fingers dug into her arms. "They were killed four days ago. All of ’em. We don’t know who did it. The farm was robbed and most every­thing was burned.”

She stiffened. "That’s not possible. Papa enlisted when Andrew Jackson asked Cherokees to help him fight the Creek Indians. He’s a veteran. My mother’s mother was a medicine woman and my mother was a Beloved Woman in the Blue clan. When the first missionaries came here, she convinced the people at the Talachee settlement to trust them. No one would dare harm my family.”

"Katie gal,” he whispered, shaking her a little. "They’re dead. Be­lieve me.”

She pulled away from him and walked out of the parlor, out of the hotel, and across the side yard, where she stopped by the beech tree and wondered how she’d gotten there. Coming up the dusty trail past the hotel was a team of oxen pulling a large wagon filled with barrels. The two teamsters on the wagon seat gaped at her and pointed, then yelled something, she didn’t care what. She turned and stumbled blindly.

"Easy, gal, easy,” Justis’s drawling voice said close to her ear, and his thickly muscled arm latched around her waist. She wasn’t certain whether she was walking or being carried, but she ended up behind the hotel in the midst of a flower garden.

Her knees buckled but she didn’t fall. Instead, she was lowered to a sitting position among the flowers, and Justis sat beside her, holding her to his chest and stroking her shoulder.

"There was no shaman to speak formulas over the bodies,” she said in a hollow voice. "And no preacher to pray for them.”

"Sam said the right things,” he assured her. "And we buried ’em proper.” His arms tightened around her. "Go ahead and cry. I’m so sorry, Katie.”

After a minute passed and she only sat silent and stiff in his em­brace, he drew back to look at her. Katherine gazed past him to the sun­light streaming into the hearts of the flowers, carrying power to them, to the earth, to everything that was strong and eternal.

"They’re buried on the land?” she asked.

"On the ridge beyond the house.”

"I’ll go there. As soon as I speak to the authorities about finding the murderers. I will find the murderers.”

He didn’t say anything for a moment. Then, "You’ll never want for anything, Katie. Before I buried your pa, I promised him that I’d look after you. And I want to—it’s not just a duty.”

What was he saying? Look after her? Why was it his concern? She was no child, and she didn’t need any help from a white man.

She stared at him dry-eyed. She stood. "Good day. I’m leaving, now.”

JUSTIS KNEW SHE wasn’t heartless, and he was relatively certain that she had a sound mind, but her reaction to her family’s death was the most puzzling thing he’d ever seen. She acted no more hysterical now than she had two hours before, in the garden.

She sat on the wagon seat beside him, her bonnet in her lap, her ex­pression blank. He knew Indians could be stone-faced when they wanted, but this was different. He honestly believed she’d have walked the whole way back to the Blue Song farm if he hadn’t picked her up and set her in the wagon. Not a word before or since. Still as a statue the whole way.

They turned onto the trail to the farm, but even that seemed to have no effect on her. The trail wound between steep hills covered in hard­wood trees. As it neared the farm, clumps of purple irises and yellow jonquils dotted every sunny spot along the sides.

Suddenly she laid a hand on his arm. "Stop, I want some flowers,” she said in a low, calm voice, and he felt as though a wood thrush had just murmured in his ear. "My mother planted these when I was little. Spring must have come late this year. I’m surprised that they’re still in bloom.”

She climbed down before he could help her and spent the next ten minutes filling her arms with yellow and purple blossoms. Justis watched her in silent worry.

Back in the wagon again, she nuzzled her face against the flowers.

"You’re gonna be all right,” he said gently. "You’re just a little con­fused in the head right now.”

"No.” She gazed up the trail. It disappeared over a rise, and beyond were the first fields. "It’s all burned and broken, I know. The spring­house is the only thing that still stands.”

"How do you know that?”

"I see things in my mind sometimes, and they’re usually true.”

He inhaled sharply. "You see anything else about the place, or what happened?”

"No.”

"Good.” This was not a line of conversation he wanted to pursue. When she offered no more words, he was relieved. The mules crested the hill and he pulled them to a stop.

This part of the land was too hilly for farming. Jesse and his field hands had cleared it for grazing, so it dipped and rose under a green carpet of grass, dotted by an occasional cluster of shade trees in the valleys.

Dread grew inside Justis as the fields passed behind them and the for­est closed in again. After a short distance it opened on the main clearing. A row of burned cabins bordered the road.

"Papa freed his farmhands when he joined the church,” Katherine said casually, as if the cabins weren’t heaps of charred pine logs. "The families stayed on and worked for shares, though.”

Justis noticed that her hands were digging into the flowers as she talked, crushing them. He patted her knee. "Your pa sent the hands away last year. North. He couldn’t protect ’em from kidnappers.”

She wasn’t listening. Leaning forward, her body rigid, she gazed at the rubble of the main house and outbuildings. Her feet hit the ground before he stopped the wagon. Cursing under his breath, Justis followed her as she walked through the grounds, the flowers falling from her arms unheeded, scattering in a breeze that suddenly whipped over the ridge.

He trailed her silently, waiting for her to do something, say some­thing, to fall on the ground and sob like he expected a woman to do. She held her handsome gray skirt up and walked through the debris the raiders had spread in their hurry to find everything of value.

Justis winced as she stopped here and there to pick up small items—a button, a broken ivory comb, the stem from a pipe—all of which she tucked into her purse. She halted under the oaks in the front yard, and he prayed that she wouldn’t notice the bloodstains beneath her feet.

She didn’t seem to see anything around her, though. Her head was up, her eyes alert as if she were listening to voices he couldn’t hear, or talking silently to one of the Cherokee spirits. "Where are they buried?” she asked.

"Over yonder, overlookin’ the valley.”

The Blue Song land was beautiful, but the valley made it magnifi­cent. Jesse had grown corn taller than a man’s head in those rich bottom­lands. A meandering stream crossed the valley’s farthest edge, and hazy blue mountains rimmed the distant horizon.

Justis had made certain that all five graves faced that heavenly view.

He stood back and watched Katherine walk from one mound of red dirt to the next, her hands hanging motionless by her sides. What kind of grieving thoughts churned behind her mysterious eyes, he wondered. She took a bit of dirt from each grave and dropped it in a small purse attached to the waist of her dress.

"It’d do you good to cry,” he hinted.

She stared blankly at the graves. "I have work to do.”

She walked toward the yard again, moving with short, unsteady steps. He sighed with relief. She was in shock, that was all. He’d never seen such a bad case of it before, but he knew it would pass eventually.

She veered toward the small log structure a little way from the house. "I shall live here until the house is rebuilt,” she announced. After stumbling, she regained her composure and opened the door. Justis went over and stopped behind her, his mouth open in dismay. She was worse off than he’d figured.

She stood in the doorway and surveyed the dark, cool interior, where the farm’s butter and eggs had been stored. A stone well stood at the center, unharmed.

"I’ll sleep in the springhouse on a cot,” she said.

Sorrow and determination boiled up inside Justis. He took her by the arm, slammed the door, and swung her to face him. Be merciful, he told himself. Make the cut clean and quick.

"You’re not gonna live here, Katie. It’s not your home anymore.”

"I was born here,” she explained patiently. "My mother was born here. Her father was a half-breed fur trapper. He settled on this land in 1797. The date’s carved on an old walnut tree over there.” She pointed. "See? The tree with the bench under it...”

"The land’s been given away!” Justis yelled. He shook her hard, try­ing to break through her heart-wrenching blindness.

Finally agony and panic showed in her eyes. Her voice rose. "I can buy it back!”

"No, you don’t even have the right to do that! If you had all the money in the world you couldn’t buy it, or even lease it. The law says so!”

"It’s mine. My family’s here.” She shook her head as she talked, breathing heavily, her hands clenched. "Who stole it and killed them?”

"Nobody stoleit,” he said between gritted teeth. "I don’t have an an­swer about the other. Gangs roam all over these hills, doing whatever they want to the Cherokees, and the state lets ’em. Come on, let’s get out of here. I’m not armed well enough to protect you if a gang was to wan­der up.”

She looked as if she might bolt into the woods, and Justis suddenly wondered how he would ever get her back to town. He pulled her to him gently and wrapped his arms around her. She struggled. He held her tighter.

"It’s because of this,” she said in fierce anguish, raising the gold nug­get that hung there. "This poison is responsible for bringing every worthless white soul in the country here to murder innocent people.” She slung the nugget aside and dug her hands into his shirt. "Who stole this land?”

"Let’s go back to town,” he said. He’d have to take her back by force if she didn’t cooperate. "I’ll tell you once we get there. Only when we get there. If you want to know who owns the land, you have to come with me.”

"Release me. I swear I’ll kill you, if you don’t.”

She writhed inside his arms. Nothing he said or did could calm her. Desperate, he pushed her to the ground, held her as she shrieked with fury, and pulled a small brown bottle from his pocket. Jerking the cork free with his teeth, he sat on her as gently as he could while holding her jaw with one hand and forcing the vial between her lips.

Laudanum spilled across her face. She uttered a growl he’d never for­get, trying to spit, but absorbing enough of the drug to do the job. Gradually, against her will, her muscles loosened and her head relaxed against his arm. He turned her over and held her, rocking her a little, cleaning her face with his big, callused fingers. Her black hair, its braids tangled and unfettered, spread over the churned ground.

She looked up at him with glassy anger. And finally, as her eyes shut, with tears.
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