Chapter One

Claudia waited anxiously on her perch on the bed. She glanced at the clock; it was past midnight, but Noah had still not come in from his nightly survey of the ranch.

She ran her hand down her abdomen. It was almost flat, but not quite. Her eyes began to well up. Three months ago she would have been thrilled to be bearing these scars, the protruding belly, the stretch marks, the lingering weight gain; she wanted it all, but only if it came with the prize she was supposed to have. A baby.

Unable to stop herself, Claudia rose from hers and Noah’s bed and walked slowly to the alcove. She opened a closet and found a small wooden cradle inside. As the tears coursed down her cheeks, she dropped to her knees and rested her head against the side.

“I’m sorry,” she cried. “So sorry. You didn’t deserve this. This was our fault, not yours. But you paid the price.”

Claudia’s body collapsed, sagging to the floor. Her beautiful baby boy was dead. Ethan did not know if it was because of the syphilis of not. But she was sure, she had somehow passed the disease onto her child and because of that, her baby was gone. Little James McCloud was dead. He had come into this world, small and weak, but with a head full of dark curly hair and the biggest blue eyes she had ever seen. And within two weeks, he was gone. But the ache inside her remained. If fact, it grew larger with each passing day.

And the worst part was, she had no guarantees it wouldn’t happen again. If she and Noah had another child, would the baby die? No one knew because no one was sure why little James had passed away.

Part of Claudia longed to try again, but part of her was terrified. She did not think she was strong enough to watch a baby die again. She also did not know if her marriage could take the strain of losing another child.

“Shorty,” Noah said, coming into the bedroom.

Claudia quickly pushed the door of the closet shut and jumped to her feet, not wanting Noah to see her crying. “Everything all settled?” she asked, hoping he did not see her wipe her eyes.

Noah sat down heavily on the bed, pushing his crutches away from him. Claudia flinched with the loudness of the sound as they hit the floor with a heavy thump.

Noah held his arms out to her and as she did every night, Claudia went to him.

“Don’t cry, sweetie,” Noah murmured, holding her close, his lips sliding up her neck and when they reached her mouth, there was only silence, both of them wordlessly undressing the other as the need to be close outweighed all reasonable thought. When Noah held her, the fear of pregnancy suddenly became very distant.

The only way she and Noah communicated anymore was here, late at night in their bed, their bodies entwined until the sun rose. And then Noah left to work the ranch and Claudia was left alone.

*~*~*

Noah gazed at Claudia’s sleeping form. His lips brushed her forehead before he rose from the bed. He did not want to be here when she awoke. He could not bear to see the sorrow in her eyes.

Their child was dead and he was to blame. Claudia never said the words out loud, but he was certain she thought that too. How could she think otherwise? He was the one who had brought that damned disease into their lives. It had almost taken Claudia’s life, but because of his brother-in-law, Caleb, and his gift for pharmaceuticals, she had been spared. But there was nothing anyone could do for their baby.

Noah hurried from the room and closed the door behind him. He shook his head, trying desperately to clear away thoughts of his son, because if he let himself think about him, the grief would eat him alive. So every day, he pushed the recollection of baby James deeper and deeper inside him. He prayed that some day the memory would be gone. But then on other days, he hoped he would never forget. He never wanted to forget the feeling of James’ warm breath against his neck, or the way the baby’s tiny fingers closed around his thumb.

As he reached the kitchen, he slid into a chair and sobbed. He hoped Claudia would not be awaked by the sound. He did not want to burden her with his grief. He was supposed to be the strong one here. Even if it was all pretend, he had to be resolute, push his grief aside and hold their marriage together.

But even he knew that he was doing a piss poor job of that as well. All he and Claudia did anymore was share a bed. But it took away the loneliness and it made him feel close to Claudia, for a little while at least. He only hoped it was the same for her.

Chapter Two

Red Bear moved to the bar and motioned to the bartender. The portly bearded man serving drinks did not so much as give him a second glance before filling his glass and he once again felt a twinge of guilt. He always did.

No matter what he looked like, he considered himself Indian. His father, Buck Cross, had installed that belief in him early on. Even though he was only one quarter Kiowa, his upbringing, his beliefs, his whole value system was Kiowa.

It was his many visits to Rock Creek that allowed his to fit in so easily into the white world. Spending time with the McClouds and Hickoks, and their children helped him understand how the white man’s world worked.

And with his light brown hair and green eyes, he easily passed for white. It was funny though, whenever an Indian saw him, they knew, without words, he was Indian. Maybe it was the sharp planes of his face which gave him away or maybe it was the quiet way he carried himself, a holdover from his father’s teachings. Whatever it was, the Indians always knew.

As he looked once more around the crowded saloon, blending in easily with all the other men, playing cards or drinking in the crowded saloon, a red man did not. And for that Red Bear was grateful. It made his life so much easier.

It was so much easier to do his job as Jimmy Hickok’s deputy as a white man rather than an Indian. He had just delivered a prisoner to the sheriff in Plattsmouth and needed a place to unwind for the evening before he turned in.

No one had questioned why he had a white man in shackles, tied to the side of the wagon. No one asked during the whole journey here and no one at the sheriff’s office asked what his business was or whom he thought he was, shackling a white man. They simply accepted him as another lawman doing his job.

But that did not stop him from feeling guilty inside. He knew what life on the reservation was like and at first he had a great deal of adjusting, easily accepting everything the white man just took for granted.

It also disturbed him that it had taken a shockingly small amount of time for him to adjust. Some days he had trouble remembering life on the reservation.

And when he was being honest with himself, he realized he loved being away from the reservation. He hated the poverty in which his people lived. And unlike his father and mother, he felt as if he served no useful purpose there. Even his younger brother, Swift Arrow, was doing something to help his people. Swift Arrow was helping his mother write articles and publishing them in the tribal newspaper. Both Swift Arrow and their mother hoped a larger paper would pick up these articles, giving the Indians a voice, a real voice. Red Bear doubted this would ever happen, but he kept silent, simply hoping for the best.

As he placed his glass on the bar, motioning once more to the bartender, he realized he felt far more at home here, in this bar, a stranger to all, than he ever did on the reservation. He had always been a bit shy, growing into a reserved young man, and this reserve, along with the color of his skin, kept him apart from other members of his tribe. He was close to his family and a few friends, but really no one else.

He turned his head, when he heard the entertainment begin. He saw a tall young woman with blondish brown hair take the stage. She was pretty enough, he decided, to command the attention of most men in the room. But it took him by surprise when he saw everyone, men of all ages and even the other saloon girls, stop whatever it was they were doing and stare at the woman on stage.

But when she opened her mouth to sing, he understood why. She sang like an angel. Every note in perfect pitch, every word nuanced and heartfelt. As if she understood and conveyed all the sorrow in her mournful little song and sang it just for him.

For the rest of the evening, he sat in his seat, listening. And when the show was over, he considered approaching her. But he soon gave that idea up as he realized every other man in the room had the exact same plan. The woman was besieged with offers of drinks and more. She simply laughed merrily, waved the men off and disappeared upstairs.

Chapter Three

“How is she?” Abby asked when Jimmy entered their home late that evening.

“All right, I guess,” Jimmy answered softly. But he could not look Abby in the eye. She would know then that Claudia was not all right. Claudia had a powerful case of the blues and he did not know what he could do to help her. Nothing he said seemed to help and he had gone because nothing Abby said helped either.

When he got to the house, he found Claudia sitting on the porch swing, staring out at nothingness. She had nothing to say to him either. She made polite small talk, inquiring about everyone’s heath, asking about his job. Then she sat quietly, not even crying.

It hurt watching her bottle away all her grief. Jimmy knew it was not healthy, but he did not know how to help her either. He did not want to bring up painful memories for her and watch her cry, but he did not want her to pretend her child had not ever existed either.

So Jimmy sat with Claudia. He rambled aimlessly about the family and his job until Noah came home.

It was then Jimmy saw Noah was even worse off than Claudia was. He had almost nothing to say and he did not seem able to sit in a room with him, for even a few minutes. And he was surprised to see it, especially since Noah functioned normally away from Claudia. Jimmy had seen him in town on several occasions and he knew the ranch was doing better than ever. But the instant Noah walked into his home, the unbearable silence suffocated everything. Noah and Claudia were obviously struggling with their problems and they could find no solace with each other.

Abby shook her head and Jimmy knew she saw right through him.

“I asked Claudia to come with me to Valley,” Jimmy said. He had a meeting with a sheriff up there. Something about a swindler coming through that the sheriff wanted him to be aware of. Apparently that sheriff knew some people who had lost quite a bit and he had a personal interest in making sure justice was served.

“What on earth for?” Abby exclaimed.

Jimmy shrugged. “I don’t know. Just thought she could use some time away from Rock Creek.”

“Did she say yes?” Abby asked softly and Jimmy saw a tiny sliver of hope in her eyes.

“She didn’t say no,” Jimmy told her, not wanting to dash that hope. But he knew Claudia would not go with him. Their daughter was stuck in this cycle of hopelessness and despair and he did not know how to break her out of it.

“When do you leave?” Abby asked with a resigned sigh.

“I think I’ll just send Red Bear,” Jimmy replied, wrapping an arm around his wife.

“Good,” Abby murmured, snuggling against him.

Chapter Four

Red Bear frowned as he saw Claudia step out of the sheriff’s office. She was so pale.

She waved as she caught his eye and he stopped in the road in front of the livery. Suddenly packing his horse up did not seem so important.

“Leaving town again?” she asked with a smile when she reached his side. But Red Bear saw no laughter in her eyes. Even this simple conversation took too much out of her. But even though he knew Claudia did not want to talk, he wanted her to, not only so he could hear her voice, but also because he firmly believed behaving as normally as possible was good for her.

“Your father is merciless,” he said, deadpan.

He was disappointed to see that his quip could not make her smile. She simply nodded at him. “Yeah,” she said, “he is.”

“You want anything from Valley?” Red Bear asked. Abby had asked him for some cloth from a store there. Apparently the dressmaker there was quite well renowned.

Claudia shrugged.

Then much to his chagrin, he found himself speaking again, saying things he had no business saying. “Why don’t you come with me?”

He hated knowing that he still had feelings for Claudia, feelings that he should be able to put away now that she was with Noah. But he couldn’t just turn his feelings on and off like that, he wasn’t built that way.

It irked him further, knowing how much she had suffered because of her relationship with Noah. He would never have brought those kinds of problems into their life.

He shook his head ruefully. He and Claudia never got to that point, the point of having a life together. Red Bear had spent his life on the reservation, coming up only for special occasions or the month-long annual family trip to Rock Creek during the summer. Thus he never got the opportunity to woo Claudia. He only had enough time to spend with her and find out how special she was.

Red Bear shoved the nagging thought that popped into his head whenever he realized what he was doing – How come it was enough time for him to fall in love and but not enough time for Claudia? But as he always did he pushed it aside and focused on Claudia, the Claudia standing right in front of him. She needed his help and he wanted to give it to her. “So how about it?” he asked.

Claudia laughed out loud and punched his arm affectionately. “I’m a married woman,” she told him sternly. She linked her arm through his. “Not that I would mind the company,” she added. “We always did have fun.”

Red Bear nodded. “Remember when we started up that lemonade stand -”

“And we told everyone the money was for charity,” Claudia interrupted. “But then we spent all the money on candy.”

“I wasn’t allowed to see anything but the inside of Grandpa Spoon’s house for weeks,” Red Bear grinned. The punishment itself had been awful, but it had been wonderful sharing that secret with Claudia.

“You got off easy,” Claudia smiled, rubbing her backside. “I couldn’t sit down for a week.”

Red Bear’s arms tightened around Claudia’s waist. She smelled like lemons. She always smelled so fresh. “My father wasn’t one for spankings, but I had the chores to do that no boy should have to do.”

“You are such a baby,” Claudia laughed. And Red Bear felt himself begin to glow inside. He knew he could take away some of her pain.

“Me?” Red Bear sputtered. But that fleeting moment of happiness was already gone. And he knew why. That word – baby.

Claudia stood on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. “Have a safe trip,” she told him, “and I’ll see you when you get back.”

Red Bear watched as she walked down the road. He knew somewhere deep inside of him that he was venturing into very dangerous territory. Claudia was extremely vulnerable and feeling very alone. But he was not able to stop himself from continuing down this path. He was still in love with her and he knew he could make her happy, if only she would give him the chance.

It made his blood boil to know that Noah had her, but could not appreciate her. How could he be so blind to her pain? It was so obvious.

Chapter Five

“No,” Red Bear heard a woman’s voice protest from a nearby table. But he heard the lilt in her voice, as if she could be persuaded to do whatever the asker wanted, with just a bit more enticement.

He pushed his plate away and pulled a few bills from his pocket. He hoped he was not being obvious, eavesdropping the way he was, but the hotel restaurant was empty and he could not help but listen in.

At least he was done with dinner and could retire now. He had an early meeting with the sheriff tomorrow so getting to his room sounded like a very good idea right now.

“But Princess,” a man said. “I’ve heard such wonderful things about your country and -”

“Really,” the woman said and this time the voice was curt. “I do not think it is a woman’s place to speak of such matters.”

Red Bear turned his head in the direction of the pair and his mouth fell open as he saw the ‘princess’. That was no princess. That was the saloon singer he had seen in Plattsmouth.

“Wonderful,” he muttered to himself, turning back to his own table. He had come here to meet with the sheriff about some swindlers, but looks like he beat the sheriff to the punch. He knew who the swindler was. Or at least he assumed that was the case. The girl had to have assumed a false identity and why else would someone pretend to be something they aren’t, except to lie and cheat.

His eyes dropped to his arm when he felt a warm hand clutch at him. The ‘princess’ was smiling at him, but when he saw her eyes, he flinched slightly. That had to be one of the coldest looks he had ever received. He realized then that she recognized him as well. He thought he had been cagey, hiding his admiration of a pretty girl, but obviously not. This woman knew who he was from those few minutes in the saloon.

“And I really need to catch up a bit with an old friend,” she added, nodding at Red Bear.

Red Bear saw a smartly dressed older man, standing beside her, sigh softly and smile. “Then I will see you in the morning. Good evening to you both,” he said with a tip of his head.

“Save it,” the woman said, dropping her lilting accent, once the older man was out of earshot. Her voice was hard and angry now. “I don’t wanna hear it.” She pulled out a chair across from him and sat down, never once taking her eyes off of him.

“Hear what?” Red Bear countered. “That I know what you are?”

“What am I?” she shot back. But Red Bear didn’t even get a chance to answer her question. “I know what you are too,” she added with a scowl.

“I’m a deputy,” Red Bear informed her.

“Hmph,” the woman said. “Does the sheriff know you are Indian?”

Red Bear narrowed his eyes at her. But he could not help but wonder – how did she know? Then he saw the same thing in her face. The flatness of her cheeks, the grace with which she held her head. She had to be Indian as well.

“Pawnee,” she said, answering his unasked question.

Red Bear nodded.

“My mother was Pawnee, my father was white,” she continued. She looked at him expectantly and Red Bear was struck by the oddness of this situation. Here he was, making small talk with a criminal, someone he should be arresting.

“My father is half-Kiowa, half white,” he said. “My mother is a Swede.”

“So I’m more Indian than you,” she mused, half-smiling.

Red Bear shrugged. “Was your father a King?”

The woman laughed then. “Soldier,” she answered.

“I need to take you to the sheriff’s office,” Red Bear told her.

The woman laughed once more. “I need to take you to the sheriff’s office,” she repeated, her voice mocking. “For what?”

“How much have you taken from that man?” Red Bear asked.

“Not one cent,” she informed him.

“Then why are you claiming to be a princess?”

“Why are you claiming to be a lawman?”

“I am one,” Red Bear said, feeling rather ridiculous. He did not have to defend himself to this woman. He was a lawman and she was a swindler.

“Then go find a real criminal, I haven’t taken any money from anyone in this town.”

Red Bear did not miss the statement – in this town.

The woman rose from the table. “I trust that the matter is cleared now.”

Red Bear narrowed his eyes at her. He had no hard evidence to take her in, but he knew he would keep an eye on her, see if the information he gathered tomorrow led him to her.

“Thought so,” she said, pushing her chair in. “Good evening then.”

“Wait,” Red Bear called out impulsively. “What is your name?” He would need to know in case he had to track her down.

“Dena, but most white folk call me Deena.” With that she disappeared.

And Red Bear got the feeling he was being insulted. Most white folk - he was Indian!

Chapter Six

“The swindler is a man known as Casper Ackers,” Red Bear explained, handing Jimmy the wanted poster he had received from the sheriff in Valley.

Jimmy nodded, studying the picture. On it was a hand drawn portrait of an older man with dark hair. He was listed as being 6’ 1”, medium build. No other identifying features.

Red Bear had been surprised to see the picture. He was expecting the woman, Dena, to be on the wanted poster. And when he had seen this Casper fella, he had felt his gut loosen just a bit. Maybe Dena was simply making her way in the world as best she could, as she was not cheating people out of money as he had originally surmised. Truth be told, he did not want her to be a swindler. He felt a sort of kinship with her, knowing they were both Indian, passing for white. He was glad not to be the one making her life any more difficult than it already had to be.

From what he had learned, Casper Ackers went from town to town, gathering investors in some crazy scheme; a gold mine, a rainmaker, a new rifle, something that people always thought should be invented and were more than happy to get in on in the beginning. People would happily invest then Casper would vanish. Thus the sheriff’s reasoning to get the word out. The more people who knew about Ackers and his schemes, the less likely they would succeed. Not an uncommon way to make a living, just one that needed to be stopped.

Jimmy tacked the poster to the wall and Casper Ackers took his place amongst the many other men up there. “Why don’t you make sure Caleb and some of the other stores around here know about our friend Mister Ackers?”

Red Bear nodded.

“And Mister Traynor, at the hotel, just sent word. There is a princess coming to town in a few days. He wants to make sure we are prepared for her arrival,” Jimmy added.

Red Bear grimaced. A princess? Yeah, that would be the day. He knew exactly who was coming.

*~*~*

“Claudia,” Red Bear called out, his spirits instantly rising upon seeing her walking down the road.

“How was Valley?” Claudia inquired formally.

“Fine,” Red Bear replied. He waved the wanted papers in his hand. “I just have to give these out, give everyone a head’s up on this swindler.”

Claudia nodded and Red Bear could see that she wasn’t listening, not really. Her eyes were dancing around, her hands were twisting a handkerchief and she kept shifting her weight back and forth.

“Something wrong?” Red Bear asked softly. It was not like Claudia to remain so quiet after he mentioned a swindler. Normally she would be bursting with questions.

Claudia shook her head. “It’s nothing.”

“Bad news?” Red Bear persisted.

“Really, I don’t -” Claudia began.

“I got that cloth your mother wanted,” Red Bear said. He motioned Claudia and she followed him, giving him a perplexed look.

He knew this sudden shift in topic was strange, but he got the feeling that this was a personal problem, something that should not be discussed so openly. Once they reached the small apartment above the general store, the place he called home, he opened the door and began rummaging for said cloth.

Once he found it he held it in his hand but he did not hand it off to Claudia. “Want some tea or something?”

Claudia laughed. “You have tea?”

“No, but, well,” Red Bear stammered. He dropped the package on the bed. “I just wanted to talk to you.” He tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “You don’t look so good.”

Claudia rubbed her eyes. “Thanks,” she said sarcastically. She turned away from him and gazed out the window. “You know this used to be Noah’s place.”

Red Bear cursed silently. Yes, he did know that. He just chose to forget it. He felt a twinge of guilt at the mention of the name Noah. But that guilt did not deter him. In fact, it made him more determined than ever. Claudia deserved to be happy.

“Claudia,” he began.

“This is a pretty color,” Claudia said, admiring the blue material as she looked back at the package on the bed.

“I know something is wrong.”

“You always did have good taste.”

“You can tell me what’s bothering you,” Red Bear persisted.

“My ma will be pleased. She’s been talking about making Emmaline a new dress.”

“I want to help you.”

“I don’t want your help,” Claudia snapped finally responding to his entreatments.

“But it’s there, whenever you need it,” Red Bear said softly. Then much to his horror Claudia burst into tears.

Red Bear gathered her in his arms. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. He shouldn’t have pressured her so much.

“I’m expecting,” Claudia cried and Red Bear saw every defense she had previously put up was crumbling.

Red Bear held her tightly. She was shaking so badly. He felt so guilty upon hearing the news; it was so very private. He shouldn’t have badgered her, but even though the news floored him he was glad he knew. It was good to share a confidence with Claudia. They hadn’t done that in a long while and he had missed being her confidante. Ever since he moved to Rock Creek, he was constantly reminded of how much things had changed from his many previous visits. He wasn’t supposed to love Claudia anymore, be her co-conspirator. It was Noah who loved her now and it was Mary who kept her secrets. But knowing it and believing it were two very different things.

Claudia continued to cry and when she was finally able to speak, she asked, “So what do I do?” She had taken him into her confidence and now he had to come up with answers to help her.

Red Bear had no idea what she should do. He was well out of his league. “Do?” he repeated stupidly. What was there to do?

“I don’t think I could take it if this baby died,” Claudia whispered. She shook her head, wiping the tears from her cheek. “I don’t think my marriage could take it.” She leaned against him. “But I want this baby, I want it so bad I can’t stand it.”

Red Bear led her to the bed and sat down beside her, cradling her in his arms. “I know you do,” he murmured. He had no idea what to do now, but sit and listen as Claudia told him all her fears. She was terrified of having this child and watching yet another baby die. Not only for herself but also for Noah. And the thing that was eating at her most was keeping this a secret. She had not told Noah. She didn’t think she could.

Chapter Seven

Noah wiped his brow as glanced at the cattle grazing in the valley. It was roasting outside already. He hated the dog days of summer and couldn’t wait until it was September.

“The cattle look good,” Kid declared, nodding his head in satisfaction. He moved his horse next to Noah’s on ridge.

Noah shrugged.

“I know it ain’t been easy either,” Kid continued. “You and your men have worked hard to make sure the animals have had enough hay.”

“We’re just lucky the creek hasn’t dried up,” Noah said in a monotone voice. This was the way his life was now, his business was doing fine, his personal life was crumbling and soon it would wither and blow away, yet there seemed to be nothing he could do about it. Everyday it seemed like he and Claudia had less and less to say to one another. He didn’t understand how she could even stand to look at him, let alone talk to him?

“Luck is a big part of getting these animals to market,” Kid told him. “We’re still driving them to Omaha next month, right?”

“That’s the plan,” Noah replied absently. He wished he could focus more on the upcoming drive, but all he could think about was Claudia. Last year she couldn’t go because she was expecting and they had made so many plans for the next one – this one that is. But he knew Claudia wouldn’t come this year either, because he wouldn’t ask her. If she came, they would both be miserable and the hands would sense their unease, just adding to the misery of the drive. Why do it if he didn’t have to?

“Son,” Kid said gently. “You don’t have to go this year if you don’t want to.”

Noah gaped at his father. “Huh? You planning on going?” Last year his father had made a big show of not going, trying so hard to prove he had faith in his crippled son, letting him go alone. Noah took a deep breath. He would not fall into that self-pity trap. His leg was long gone and he knew he could make do. In fact, he rarely used his crutches anymore. The prosthesis no longer pained him and in fact he found it easier to get around with his false leg than the crutches.

“If you need me to, I can,” Kid said quietly. He paused, studying his son. “I know what you are going through. Lord knows me and your ma barely made it through when Natalie died but -”

“Save it,” Noah interrupted loudly. “I didn’t ask for you advice. I don’t need your advice. In fact, I don’t need -”

“I know,” Kid cut him off before Noah said something he would really regret. “I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. I’m not prying. I just want you to know I’m here, anytime you need to talk.”

“Yeah, you are,” Noah said curtly. He turned and began riding to the ranch and all Kid could do was watch. He would have to bide his time until Noah was ready. He just hoped Noah was ready soon. Claudia needed him.

Chapter Eight

Red Bear watched as the procession made its way into the hotel. The ‘princess’ and her entourage had arrived.

He continued to gawk as Dena, regaled in a bright blue dress and sparkling tiara, marched up the stairs of the hotel, a large black haired man behind her, along with another woman, her arm linked through an older man’s arm.

“I’m gonna go in and make sure the princess and Mister Traynor have whatever they need,” Jimmy said, stepping outside of the marshal’s office, coming to stand beside Red Bear.

“If it’s alright with you, I might ask you to move into the hotel temporarily,” Jimmy continued.

“Huh?” Red Bear exclaimed, his attention quickly switching from the group of people that were lingering outside the hotel to what Jimmy was saying. “Why?”

“I would feel better knowing you were there,” Jimmy explained. He gave Red Bear a sheepish smile. “Call me a fool, but every time I hear the word princess, I think of a fairy tale princess and I would hate the thought of something happening to her, especially here, in Rock Creek, under our watch.”

Red Bear gave him a rueful smile. “If you want me to I’ll do it,” he replied. “It’s a heck of a lot nicer than my room.”

Jimmy clapped him on the shoulder. “Thanks. I knew I could count on you.” He moved toward the street. “I’m gonna head over to the hotel, introduce myself and let them know you’ll be close by.”

Red Bear nodded. “I’ll pack up.” He felt a wave of guilt crash over him as he realized how much he was keeping from Jimmy. Jimmy was more than his boss; he was an uncle when he was younger and now a friend. And Red Bear hated keeping information from him. But he knew exactly what Jimmy would do and he did not think Dena deserved to go to jail. Why? He wasn’t quite sure, but he felt a kinship and he was never one to break a connection, even when it should be broken.

Maybe he had no business making these kinds of decisions, but he had already made it. He would head Dena off before she did anything and hustle her out of town. She could do her thieving elsewhere.

Exhaling loudly, he made his way to his room and packed a bag. He had just stepped out into the street when he saw her, Dena. She was scurrying somewhere. She had exited the hotel from the back door and was now darting behind every possible building. Red Bear had only caught sight of her dress as she paused for a moment to check behind her.

When she began moving once more, Red Bear followed her. And when he was ducking behind a corner, Dena popped up right in front of him, causing him to take a step backward in shock.

“Snooping I see,” Dena said, looking at him disdainfully. She glanced at the star on his shirt. “And still carrying on that charade of being a deputy.”

“Charade?” Red Bear sputtered indignantly. “I am a deputy.” He hated hearing the whine creep into his voice, but this woman drove him insane with her insistence that he was as big a liar as she was.

Dena laughed at him.

“And the sheriff knows I’m Kiowa,” Red Bear continued, growing steadily more angry.

Dena eyed him warily. “Really?” she said finally.

Red Bear nodded. “And if you don’t leave soon, I’m gonna tell him about you too.”

“You mean you haven’t already?” she asked quickly and Red Bear cursed himself mentally. She was quick; he had to give her that.

“No,” he admitted reluctantly. “But I will.”

“No, you won’t,” she declared.

Red Bear took a step toward the street. “I’m going to right now.” The bond of two people both having Indian blood, trying to make their way in the white world simply wasn’t enough, he decided. His father had taught him the meaning of the word family and his Uncle Jimmy was family, not this Dena person who he hardly knew.

“And what will the sheriff say when he finds out you’ve been having an affair with his daughter?” Dena asked smugly.

“WHAT?” Red Bear half-shouted. This woman was insane. He was not having any affair with anyone, let alone Claudia.

“I saw you,” Dena continued in that haughty manner.

“Saw me what?” Red Bear fumed, feeling more and more confused and he hated knowing that there was a feeling of apprehension building in his gut.

“Take her to your room,” Dena announced. When Red Bear stared at her, slack-jawed, she added, “We always look around a town before actually appearing,” she told him, her eyes hardening. “And I saw you escort her up to your room.” She paused, studying Red Bear, waiting for a reaction. “You two were up there an awful long time.”

When Red Bear remained silent, she removed a fan from her bag and fanned herself dramatically. “The sheriff may not care if you are Indian, but he won’t want you carrying on with his married daughter, now will he?”

She smiled at him as she walked away and Red Bear silently cursed her. How did he manage to get himself into such a predicament? His uncle would kill him if he ever even suspected such a thing was happening.

Chapter Nine

Red Bear knocked at the door, scowling fiercely at the floor. He did not want to do this, but what choice did he have. Jimmy had asked him to escort ‘the princess’ to the social, to make sure she had the proper security and he had to say yes. He had no other choice. He was the deputy and Jimmy was his boss.

But when Dena opened the door he began to laugh. He had never seen a woman in such disarray. Her normally tidy blondish hair was everywhere, riotous curls bouncing all the way down her back. Gone was the aura of control she always possessed and in its place was a sense of panic. She stood in front of Red Bear in her stocking feet and wearing only a white cotton shift; behind her were piles and piles of discarded dresses, lying on the floor and on the bed.

“Don’t say a single word,” Dena cried, kicking at a pile as she stormed back into her room.

“Where is your maid?” Red Bear asked archly. “Don’t princesses always have maids to help them dress?”

“Shut up and help me pick out a dress,” Dena retorted.

Red Bear merely crossed his arms in front of him and leaned back against the door jam. Dena stumbled over a shoe as she crossed the floor. She dragged him fully into her room and slammed the door shut.

“Aren’t you afraid of being alone in a room with me?” Red Bear snapped. “What will people say?”

“There are no people,” Dena shot back. “Unlike you, I know what I’m doing.” She waved her hand at the door. “Don’t you remember passing the woman in the hall, Ellen? She came with me and she wouldn’t let anyone else on the floor but you. And you are only allowed here because the sheriff asked us to let you escort me. We don’t say no to the sheriff.”

“How very law-abiding of you,” Red Bear retorted.

“Enough with your sarcasm,” Dena said. “Help me or we’ll be here all night.” She stopped her frantic arm waving and batted her eyelashes at him. “Unless that’s what you had in mind.”

Red Bear stared at her. Was she joking, making fun of him or could she be serious? He knew she worked in a saloon and she was attractive. And he was not oblivious of the charms a pretty woman held. He just did not think she was attracted to him.

“Oh relax,” Dena laughed. “I was only teasing you. I know you are spoken for.” She rolled her eyes. “Too bad the object of your affection is married.”

“Enough, I don’t need the opinions of a saloon whore,” Red Bear snapped, picking up a gold dress from the floor and handing it to Dena. “Get dressed already. The town is awaiting their princess.” He drew out the word princess but Dena didn’t react to the way he spoke. She slipped the dress over her head and presented her back to Red Bear who began fastening the many hooks.

He felt a very large pang of guilt as he continued hooking up her dress. He had no business saying that to her. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have said that.” Who was he to judge anyone?

“Don’t be,” Dena replied, lifting her hair up so Red Bear could get the last few hooks. “It’s not the first time I’ve heard that. And I’m not a whore, by the way,” she informed him. “I used to sing in saloons. The men I was with were men of my choosing. They did not buy me.” She turned around and studied her reflection in the mirror, smoothing the skirt of her dress.

Red Bear heard no anger in her voice. She was simply telling him he was wrong, nothing else.

“Where else can an Indian with a nice voice work?” she asked, pulling her hair into a topknot, then pulling out a few tendrils. She slid into some slippers and placed a diamond-studded tiara on top of her head.

“Done,” she said finally, twirling in front of him.

“Is this real?” Red Bear asked, tapping on her tiara.

Dena laughed. “What do you think?” She opened the door and stepped outside. “Let’s go, my people await,” she added, waving her hands.

Red Bear could not help but chuckle. She was always fluttering about. But he didn’t get a sense that she was not being malicious. Maybe this was just a way for her to get a nice room, eat some good food, and wear some pretty clothes as she went from town to town. After all, he had not seen any sign of the real swindler, the one on the wanted poster, Casper Ackers, around her.

Chapter Ten

Red Bear frowned; watching as yet another young man caught Dena by the hand and twirled her onto the dance floor. After standing in a receiving line for almost an hour, Dena had gotten permission from the older man in her group, Gregory, to dance and mingle with the younger townsfolk. And mingle she did. Red Bear was positive there wasn’t a man in the room Dena had not danced with. Except him.

He scowled even harder then. What did he care who Dena danced with? He was watching her as part of his job, nothing else. But oddly enough, he did care.

“Having a good time?” Claudia asked, coming to stand beside him.

Well, he cared until now, Red Bear decided, smiling at Claudia. “You made it, finally.”

“Noah was working late,” Claudia said softly, watching her husband from across the room. He was talking to some businessmen.

“But you’re here now,” Red Bear declared, catching Claudia by the hand and pulling her onto the dance floor.

It made his heart lighten to see her beam at him as they whirled across the floor in perfect rhythm. They always did enjoy the town dances.

As the music changed to a slower song, he and Claudia slowed down and began moving toward the punch bowl. Red Bear longed to ask her how she was feeling but she seemed so happy now, he did not want to bring up anything that might dampen her spirits.

“Red Bear,” Noah said, quickly joining them. He shook Red Bear’s hand. “How you been?” he asked.

“Good,” Red replied absently unable to tear his eyes away from Claudia’s face. As Noah took his wife’s hand, the look on Claudia’s face made him wince. If Red Bear did not know it before, he knew it now. Claudia was deeply madly in love and she was in love with her husband.

“’Scuse us, I think I owe my wife a dance” Noah said. He turned to Claudia. “Shorty?” he said taking a tiny bow and she smiled at him. Together they walked onto the floor and wrapped their arms around one another, swaying gently to the beat of the music.

Red Bear watched for a moment before he quickly turned away. He would not watch, he just couldn’t; it hurt too much. He lifted the ladle from the glass punch bowl and moved it toward his cup. But he ended up spilling the red liquid all over the tablecloth instead of pouring it into a glass.

“Let me,” Dena said smoothly. She took the ladle from his hand and poured him a drink.

Red Bear eyed her irritably. He did not want Dena of all people to witness this. He prayed that she would remain silent for once. But as usual, his prayer fell on deaf ears and Dena spoke once more.

“She never looks at you the way she looks at him,” she said, watching Noah and Claudia.

“Who asked you for your opinion?” Red Bear snapped.

“No one,” Dena replied easily.

“Red Bear,” Jimmy said, coming to stand beside his deputy.

“Yeah,” Red Bear replied wearily. He wished Dena would just go away and dance with one of her admirers, but when one of them approached her, she tucked her arm under his and the young man made a sharp U-turn and went the other direction.

He gave her a quizzical look and for once she avoided his eyes.

“I think you should take the princess back to the hotel now,” Jimmy continued. “She has made her appearance and met just about everyone her advisor wanted her to. The later she stays, the harder it’ll be to make a quick exit,” he said softly.

Red Bear nodded. He knew how worried Jimmy was about the princess’ security. Getting back to the hotel now when the streets were empty would be a lot easier than getting her home later when everyone else left at the same time.

Keeping her arm tucked under his, they stepped outside. Red Bear felt the heavy air hit him in the face. It was going to rain soon.

“I’m sorry,” Dena said quietly.

“For what?”

“Taking you away from the dance so soon. I know your friend just got there.”

Red Bear ignored her. He would not discuss Claudia with her.

“She doesn’t love you, you know,” Dena persisted.

I know, Red Bear thought glumly. He wasn’t blind.

He continued to walk with Dena, calling out a few good-byes to the people he saw on the road.

“Don’t you ever feel bad pretending you are something you aren’t?” Red Bear asked, trying to make Dena feel as uncomfortable as he was.

“I have been pretending every day for a long time,” Dena answered, her voice catching in her throat.

Red Bear turned to look at her, surprised by the sorrow in her voice. She had been nothing but light and airy since the minute he met her. He continued to watch her as she fixed her eyes on the road ahead of her, never once turning to look at him.

Dena stopped abruptly at the hotel porch. “Good evening,” she said brightly before she kissed him full on the lips. For an instant Red Bear was startled but he quickly recovered as his hands moved to her waist. He drew her in closer; his lips nudging hers open, wanting to taste more of her. It shocked him, this sudden jolt of desire. It began at his lips and traveled right through his body.

Dena wrapped her arms around him and kissed him back before she abruptly pulled herself free. “I – I,” she stammered. She took a deep breath and Red Bear saw how flushed she was still. That kiss had affected her as much as it had affected him.

“Good evening,” Dena said firmly. Red Bear looked at her closely and saw that the mask was firmly back in place. Dena hurriedly stepped into the hotel lobby and practically slammed the door in his face.

Red Bear stared at the wooden door for a while. He shrugged his shoulders. He did not understand Dena. But he didn’t think he really understood any women.

He stepped off the porch and ambled toward the saloon. He decided he needed a drink before turning in for the evening. After that kiss he needed something to help him forget a bit.

Chapter Eleven

Noah could not help but smile as he watched Claudia boss the general store clerk. She had the young man running in every direction. It was almost like old times, he thought to himself. His bossy little wife always made him smile.

“Don’t forget this,” Claudia said to the clerk’s receding back as she scurried to the back of the store. Noah smiled, she still thought she knew everything about the store even though it had been months since she had last worked there.

“Noah,” Red Bear called out.

“Howdy,” Noah answered absently, a trifle saddened by his old friend’s appearance. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Red Bear. He did. He and Red Bear had never been as close as Red Bear and Claudia were. But he considered the man family. But family could be intrusive. Noah just preferred watching Claudia alone.

“Here,” Claudia said catching sight of Red Bear. She thrust a box in his hands. “There are a few more in the back.”

“But,” Red Bear protested half-heartedly. When Claudia had disappeared once more, he shrugged and carried the box outside.

“Noah,” Red Bear yelled, “I think we need you out here.”

Noah sighed aloud as he stepped into the bright sunlight. Squinting his eyes, he focused on the wagon.

“She said salt pork not the fresh,” the store clerk declared firmly, his eyes fixed on Red Bear.

“Do you know which one she wanted?” Red Bear asked plaintively, obviously annoyed with being drawn into this mess.

“Nope,” Noah replied. “I’ll go ask her.”

“Mr. McCloud,” Dena said smoothly, approaching the wagon. “Could I bother you for a moment?”

“In a minute. I have to ask Claudia - ” Noah began.

“Red Bear,” Dena cut Noah off as she turned to the deputy, “could you ask Mrs. McCloud?” She beamed at Noah. “I really do need your help. I’m afraid I’ve gotten myself into a bit of a predicament with your friend, Mr. Kaiser.”

Noah heard the clerk mumble an ‘excuse me’ as he disappeared into an alley beside the store. He then focused his attention on the young woman in front of him. “Mr. Kaiser?” Noah frowned. The man was a fellow rancher and he knew him through business meetings and such. Noah knew him to be rude and overbearing, to everyone. What could he have done to a princess? “Red Bear,” he said, glancing at his friend, “do you mind?”

“No,” Red Bear answered and Noah saw him scowling fiercely at the princess. He hurried up the steps and disappeared inside the store.

“Mr. Kaiser,” Noah prompted the princess who was still looking at the general store.

“Hmm,” she replied absently. But she soon recovered herself. “Oh yes, Mr. Kaiser. Seems as if he has invited me to dinner but he refuses to invite my handmaiden and her husband.” She dropped her voice and placed her hand on his arm. “I really don’t think I should go alone, do you? It would be so inappropriate.”

“No, I guess not,” Noah said, feeling rather perplexed. He knew nothing about the social mores that princesses dealt with.

“I was hoping you and your wife could invite me over and I could decline Mr. Kaiser’s invitation graciously,” she added brightly.

“Oh.” Noah stared at the tips of his boots. He and Claudia were in no shape to be entertaining.

“I’m sorry,” the princess said quickly. “I’ve obviously overstepped my bounds. I’ll find another way out.”

“I’m -” Noah began. The hopelessness that filled in normally had not been so heavy this afternoon but it hit him in the face like a wet mop and this time it stung. He and Claudia were nothing anymore. Even this stranger saw it. He and Claudia used to entertain, they used to visit other people but nowadays they could not make the effort. Noah knew it was the wrong thing to do, but going out and seeing laughing, happy people hurt. Everyone else had so much to live for, so much hope in their lives while he and Claudia had just lost a child and they were just starting to realize that they might never have another one; something they had both looked forward to. Noah recalled the many nights he and Claudia had discussed their child before he was born. Little James was going to be either a rancher, a lawman or a doctor. He was going to be able ride, rope and shoot with the best of them. He was the distillation of all their hopes and dreams.

Noah closed his eyes. Little James was in the ground. There were no hopes and dreams for him anymore. Or his parents.

“Sheriff,” the princess called out cheerfully and Noah quickly opened his eyes, roused back to the present by the princess’ happy voice. He saw that she was waving Jimmy toward her.

“Princess,” Jimmy said formally. He nodded at Noah. “Son, how are you? Claudia around?”

“She’s inside, with your deputy,” the princess informed him. She frowned at the door. “I can’t imagine what is taking them so long.”

Jimmy gave her an odd look. He stared at the store then back at Noah, a scowl appearing on his face. Noah drew a sharp breath, the implication behind the princess’ words was perfectly clear. She thought something was going on between Claudia and Red Bear. That was ridiculous, Noah thought. But as he looked at Jimmy, his saw that his father-in-law did not consider that possibility silly. Jimmy appeared quite concerned.

“Oh hush up,” Claudia laughed as she and Red Bear finally appeared. “Pa,” she smiled at her father.

Noah looked at his wife’s happy face. He wished he could have been the one to make her smile like that. But he seemed to have lost that ability. He winced inwardly. Claudia should be with Red Bear, a man who could make her happy. Yet that thought brought a pain so sharp within him, tears came to his eyes.

Red Bear loaded a box in the back of the wagon and the store clerk came out with two more. “That’s it, right?” he asked cautiously.

“Yes,” Claudia said. “Just put it on our tab.” She put her hand on Noah’s shoulder and Noah shook it off.

“Noah,” Jimmy began, his eyes fixed on his son-in-law.

“You ready to head home?” Noah asked curtly. He could not keep the bitterness out of his voice. Speaking to the princess had made him unbearably sad. And seeing Claudia with Red Bear only hurt him further. He willed himself into moving; he would push aside the pain as he had a thousand times before and continue to function.

“Yeah,” Claudia replied quietly, her smile vanishing.

Chapter Twelve

“EJ is going to the moon next week,” Abby said loudly.

“What?” Jimmy said, tearing his attention away from the peas on his plate. “The moon?”

“I see I finally got your attention,” Abby said, giving him a quizzical look. “Where were you?”

Obviously not here, Jimmy thought. He finally looked around his kitchen and noticed that his two sons, EJ and Loy, and his daughter, Emmaline, were all gone, as were their dinner plates.

Abby sat across from him, frowning. “Jimmy,” she prompted him.

“I saw Claudia today,” Jimmy admitted quietly.

“How is she?”

“She was smiling,” he told her cautiously. “For a change.”

Abby beamed. “That’s good news. Why are you so glum?”

“She was smiling because of Red Bear.”

“So what?” Abby chided him. “They are old friends.”

“Red Bear used to carry a torch for her.”

“He knows she is married,” Abby said firmly but Jimmy saw the beginnings of a frown on her face.

Jimmy knew then that she was worried too. Red Bear had loved Claudia in the past. He obviously still had a connection with her. No one else had been able to make Claudia smile like that these days and Jimmy recalled quite clearly how Noah used to make Claudia happy. She had been so happy that one could see it a mile away.

“Nothing will happen,” Abby continued with far less conviction.

“She was smiling until she saw Noah,” Jimmy said with a sigh. Claudia and Noah did not need this. They needed time alone, not interference from a third party.

“What are you saying?” Abby asked sharply.

“She’s so lost and -”

“Red Bear wouldn’t take advantage of her,” Abby interrupted.

“It wouldn’t be advantage to him if he loved her.”

Abby shook her head furiously. “She loves Noah.”

“I know,” Jimmy replied. And if she ever became involved with Red Bear, three lives would be destroyed. Red Bear and Claudia could never become a real couple, not with Noah occupying all of Claudia’s heart. Jimmy knew they were having a rough time but the love was still there, it was a palpable thing. And he knew Red Bear saw it as well.

“Are you gonna talk to him?”

“Who?” Jimmy asked, perplexed. “Noah?” His son-in-law did not need the heartache.

“Red Bear,” Abby snapped.

“No,” Jimmy replied thoughtfully. “Not yet.”

When Abby looked skeptically at him, he continued, “For now I’ll just keep an eye on the situation. Red Bear is a good man. Buck raised him right . . . ” Jimmy let his voice trail off. Who was he trying to convince, Abby or himself?

Chapter Thirteen

“Supper was good,” Noah said softly.

Claudia nodded. She took the plate from the table and placed it in the sink. As she sat back down, she played awkwardly with a pie crumb sitting on the table. “Thank you.” She sighed inwardly. She hated this. She hated the awkward formality that she and Noah spoke with these days. They had never spoken like this before.

“The cattle are looking good,” she added, desperately racking her brain for a subject they could safely discuss.

Noah nodded. “They should fetch a good price when I take them to market.”

Claudia’s brows shot upward in surprise. “You’re going?”

Noah shrugged. “I gotta.”

Claudia smiled. “Maybe we could spend a few days in Omaha after the drive.” Her mind began to wander then. She and Noah could re-connect in a new place. The change in scenery would be good for them.

“What?” she exclaimed, Noah’s voice breaking through her reverie. She could not have heard him correctly.

“I don’t think you should go,” Noah repeated, shamefaced.

“Oh.”

“It’s not that I don’t think we’d have a good time but, the drive,” Noah stammered, “the drive would be hard and you ain’t in the best shape.”

“I see,” Claudia said coldly. “Then I won’t go.” She rose from the table, ready to go to their room for the evening, alone. But her temper got the best of her and she paused by the kitchen door. “I’m sure I can find something to occupy myself here.” She had seen the surprise on Noah’s face when he saw her laughing with Red Bear.

You may take me for granted Noah McCloud, Claudia seethed inwardly, but other men appreciate me.

Yet she didn’t think Red Bear was one of them anymore. She knew Red Bear was recovering from his feelings for her. He was still attentive, still kind. But his eyes didn’t light up the way they used to; he didn’t go out of his way to touch her.

Claudia could not even feel bad for dropping such a broad hint because there was no truth to her statement. Maybe a few months ago it would have been true, not anymore. Red Bear was interested in someone else and Claudia was almost certain the princess had caught his eye.

Even though she had never reciprocated Red Bear’s feelings, knowing he no longer felt the same way hurt. She counted on Red Bear. She knew she was being unfair. Red Bear should not be used simply as an ego boost. But she needed one so badly

Claudia had always been too busy looking at Noah to really consider Red Bear’s affections. She wondered briefly if she had missed something but as she looked into Noah’s dark eyes, she knew it didn’t matter. Her heart had always belonged to Noah, even when he stomped all over it.

When Noah scowled, Claudia knew her meaning had been received. For a brief moment her heart skipped a beat. Could Noah be jealous?

But all her hopes were dashed when Noah rose to his feet and dropped a kiss on her forehead. “I just want you to be happy.” Slowly he walked from the room, leaving her alone in the kitchen.

Claudia choked back a sob. He wouldn’t even fight for them.

Chapter Fourteen

Red Bear withdrew his arm from Dena’s as soon as they reached the door of her hotel room. No one else was around, not even her so-called servants. No need to put up a charade.

“Pull a stunt like that again,” Red Bear told her between gritted teeth, “and I’ll make sure your princess days are over.”

“Stunt?” Dena asked innocently. “I was the perfect lady at dinner.”

“You know exactly what I mean,” Red Bear raged. “What you pulled at the general store this afternoon.”

Dena laughed merrily and Red Bear’s ire grew. “You won’t risk your lady love’s reputation.”

Red Bear pushed Dena against the wall. “What reputation? You are tarnishing her reputation with your lewd innuendoes.”

“Innuendoes or truth?” Dena snapped.

Red moved so he was barely inches away from her face. “I haven’t told a soul about you because underneath I thought you were a decent human being, someone who deserved a chance but -”

Dena shoved him hard and he stumbled backward. “I don’t want to hear about your chivalry. I know what men want. I know how they lie and leave the ones they claim to love behind.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Red Bear exploded.

“Men!” Dena half-shouted. “You are all users.”

“If I was such a user, I would have used you and turned you in by now,” Red Bear retorted.

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Dena retorted. “You don’t stand a chance with me.”

“Yeah?” Red Bear asked mockingly. “Then why do you go out of your way to goad me? You want my attention, good or bad.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Dena said but there was no rancor in her voice. In fact she sounded puzzled as if Red Bear had hit on some nugget of truth, one she had not ever thought about before.

“Claudia and Noah don’t need this,” Red Bear told her seriously.

“If their marriage is so weak,” Dena began, rolling her eyes.

“Their child died a few months ago,” Red Bear informed her.

Dena’s eyes grew wide. “What?”

“Their son died and they are having a hard time dealing with it. The things you said and did hurt them,” Red Bear said. “They don’t need any more hurt.”

“I’m sorry,” Dena mumbled, her cheeks flushed with shame. “I didn’t know.”

“Now you do,” Red said wearily. “I know you have your agenda but leave Noah and Claudia out of it. Please,” he added quietly.

“Fine,” Dena said irritably, “I will, now get off my back.”

Red Bear scowled fiercely. “I mean it, Dena.”

“Would you get off your high horse?” Dena snapped. “Personally I think you should look at their loss as your gain.”

“What?” Red Bear yelled.

“Your lady friend could be free soon, she has no ties left to her husband. You can woo her and feel no guilt about a woman abandoning her family. Lonely married women are so susceptible to a dashing young man’s charms,” she explained, her eyes cold and hard. But before Red Bear could respond, she changed moods once more. “Good evening,” she told him in an overly sweet voice before she disappeared into her room for the night.

Red Bear lingered in the hallway. Once again he was dumbfounded. Dena had raged to him about men then he was certain she had showed a real bit of compassion towards complete strangers. Then once again she turned into something else. As he walked down the hall, he tried once more to figure her out. But as usual, he failed.

Chapter Fifteen

Red Bear walked up the stairs of the hotel. Ellen, Dena’s apparent handmaiden, was at her usual post just outside the door. Red Bear inclined his head toward her before knocking. He sighed softly. No answer as usual. This had been their routine of sorts. They had formed an uneasy truce after their last argument. Dena didn’t publicly humiliate Claudia and Noah anymore. But she still tried to goad him.

She never told him to come in nor did she open the door. It was almost like she wanted him to catch her in some state of undress. Because that was the way he usually found her, putting on a frock or taking it off. And worst yet, he seemed to have become one of her servants, helping her pick out clothing or buttoning or unbuttoning something.

He hated that feeling, knowing that some how she had taken control of the situation. But she had. He had still not told Jimmy what he knew about her. Instead he kept his mouth shut and did her bidding.

But he would admit to himself at least that he had started enjoying her company. Oh, she was still a royal pain, literally. But it was never boring.

As he opened the door, he found the room empty. He stepped back out and glanced at Ellen who regarded him with solemn eyes. Realizing she did not know Dena was missing; he hurried back into the room and shut the door firmly behind him. Maybe he was mistaken. She could not simply disappear, could she? But as he opened the closet, searched under the bed and even behind the dresser, he began to consider the possibility that she had disappeared. Maybe she had grown weary of this life and skipped town. Or maybe she and Casper got what they wanted and left their cohorts to take the fall.

Red Bear’s mind began racing. Where could she be? He whirled around upon hearing a sound and saw the thin white curtain flapping. He realized the window was open and ran toward it. He didn’t see any sign of Dena but at least he realized how she left the room. But she wanted to leave it in secret. He sighed softly. Just another question. Why?

*~*~*

Red Bear threw his hat against the livery door in frustration. His horse nickered at him softly.

“Sorry, boy,” he muttered, picking up his hat and brushing off the straw. The brown gelding watched him with sorrowful eyes.

“Didn’t mean to startle you,” Red Bear continued. “I just thought we’d find some trace of her.”

Despite his misgivings about Dena, Red Bear had decided to look for her before going to Jimmy. Maybe he could head her off before she vanished and get her to testify against Casper Ackers. He had studied the tracks outside the hotel and knew Dena had shinnied down a drainpipe and had gone in the direction of the sheriff’s office but then he had lost her trail.

So he had gotten his horse and started searching for her. It was a rather aimless thing to do, especially since he had no idea where she could be, but he wasn’t quite ready to turn her in yet. This was a fact that troubled him greatly but he wanted to find Dena himself. Not see her in jail.

Exhaling loudly he decided to go to her room. One last check before he admitted defeat. She had gotten the better of him; she was a better con artist than he was lawman. One more look and then he would get help. He was obviously in way over his head.

Once more he trudged up the stairs and nodded at Ellen who gaped at him now. She must think he was crazy, coming here, staying for five minutes, leaving then coming back again. Who did these kinds of things? An idiot, that’s who.

He rapped at the door and as usual, nothing so he pushed the door open and much to his relief Dena was there this time. She was laying on the bed, fully dressed, save her boots which were laying half way in between the window and the bed.

He stared at her prone form. Her blondish hair was disheveled and there was a smudge of dirt on her cheek. As he sat on the bed and brushed the dirt from her face, he noted that the hem of her skirt was muddy as well. Where had she been?

Dena awoke with a start. She sat bolt upright. “Sheesh,” she complained, “don’t sneak up on me like that!”

“You were out cold,” Red Bear informed her, not unkindly though, his previous state of agitation vanishing. He could not help but feel concern for her. She was obviously afraid, from her wildly darting eyes down to her twitching feet. Something had her rattled.

Dena shrugged. “What? A girl can’t take a nap anymore?”

“I know you went somewhere,” Red Bear said.

“So traveling around Rock Creek is against the law?” Dena snapped.

“You went alone,” Red Bear said quietly. “You snuck out the window. Why? Why did you try so hard to keep it a secret?”

“Why are you so damned nosy?” Dena half shouted.

“I can help you,” Red Bear began. And it struck him; he wanted to help her, as badly as he wanted to help Claudia. Dena, if possible, looked even more lost than Claudia had earlier.

“Yeah, I know,” Dena retorted. “You are some kind of angel of mercy. But unlike your friend I can take care of myself.”

Red Bear sighed. As usual Dena was trying to goad him by bringing Claudia into this matter. But he would not fall for it. “I know you can,” he said simply.

Dena jumped up from the bed, pacing for a few seconds before she turned to face him. She slipped her dress over her head and flung it at him. Red Bear deftly caught it and placed it over a chair. “If you need help, you know you can ask me,” he said, unwilling to be distracted because he finally realized that that was what she was doing all the time. Throwing around Claudia’s name, appearing half dressed. She did not want him to focus on her the person, but only see her as an irritant or even sex object, anything but the girl behind the harsh words and curvaceous figure.

Dena shook her head. “Don’t.”

Red Bear rose from the bed and moved toward her and Dena took a step backward. “I said don’t,” she told him, her voice growing shakier.

“Dena,” Red Bear began. She was afraid, but what was she afraid of? Him? He could not believe that. Then what?

“I don’t need your help,” she snapped angrily.

As Red Bear finally reached her side and gathered her in his arms he said, “I know.” For a long time he held her, just stroking her hair while Dena stood rigidly.

“Are you ready to go to dinner now?” Red Bear asked finally. Whatever was wrong, Dena was not going to tell him, not now at least. He released her and made note of the fact Dena did not pull away. In fact she lingered against him for a brief second before she finally left his arms.

“Yeah,” she replied slowly and after a long pause she spoke once more. “Are you going to help me get dressed?” she asked in her usual bantering tone.

“Don’t I always?” Red Bear smiled.

Dena paused in mid stride on her way to the closet. “Yeah, you do,” she answered solemnly.

Chapter Sixteen

Jimmy wadded up the wanted poster and threw it across the room. He wasn’t even close to hitting the wastebasket. The poster bounced off the wall and rolled into a corner of his office.

“Having a good day?” Kid asked entering the office. He took a seat across from Jimmy.

Jimmy scowled. “Yeah, I am. Can’t you tell?” he snapped.

“What was that?” Kid asked, nonplussed by Jimmy’s harsh tone.

“Wanted poster,” Jimmy answered. “I thought it was one of Casper Ackers but it turns out that the picture is of some school teacher in Kansas.” He hated being snookered and this Casper had fooled so many lawmen with this charade. Now they were back to square one, searching for a con artist and they had no idea what he even looked like.

“You still think this Casper fella is around here?” Kid asked, his eyebrows shooting up in surprise.

“He seems to be everywhere and then he is no where,” Jimmy grumbled.

“Well at least your princess is safe,” Kid said, obviously making an effort to cheer Jimmy.

“That’s ‘cause I got myself a good deputy,” Jimmy smiled. “Almost as good as my last one,” he added softly. Noah McCloud had been an excellent deputy. It was just too bad he didn’t trust him as much as he should have. But he and Noah had put those differences behind them. Jimmy was proud of his son-in-law. But he worried about him too.

“How is Noah?” Jimmy asked, his voice still quiet.

“The same,” Kid sighed. “Has Claudia said anything?”

Jimmy shook his head. “I think she is avoiding us. She hasn’t come by the house in days.” Claudia normally came by every day or at least every other.

“You might want to stop by their place,” Kid said.

“Why?” Jimmy asked quickly, feeling rather alarmed.

“Noah is planning on going on the cattle drive in a few weeks. He just told Claudia he was leaving and she hasn’t spoken to him since.”

Kid frowned. “I hate telling you, it’s like I’m an old gossip but she won’t talk to me or Lou. I wish Mary was in town now.”

“So do I,” Jimmy replied. But Kid’s daughter, Mary, Claudia’s best friend, was on a trip with her husband. “I’ll mention it to Abby, see if she knows anything.”

Kid nodded. “I was there this morning. You could cut the tension with a knife when I walked in.” As he stood up, he added, “Claudia doesn’t look so good either.”

“She sick?” Jimmy asked, fear knotting his belly. Not again, it was over. Claudia was healthy, as was Noah.

“No,” Kid answered quickly. “I don’t think it’s serious. She just looks pretty run down.”

“I’ll stop by after work,” Jimmy decided. This matter could not keep. He would handle it immediately.

“Let me know what I can do to help,” Kid said before he left.

Jimmy smiled as the door clicked shut. He and Kid had come a long way since they first heard Claudia and Noah were involved. It was good having an ally instead of an enemy in this matter.

Chapter Seventeen

Red Bear moved silently through the tall grass. Dena, wearing men’s clothing, had climbed out the hotel window, hurried to the livery, taken a horse and rode out of town at a blistering pace.

He had been on the verge of sleep when he had heard something. He leapt out of bed and raced to the window. He saw Dena scurrying away. So he had dressed rapidly and climbed out his own window. His horse was at the livery as well and he had no trouble following her tracks as she rode away.

He spotted the horse Dena had taken before he saw her. The dark animal was tied to a tree. Dena was a few feet away. She had her hands jammed in her pant pockets as she faced another man. Red Bear moved silently through the grass to a spot where he could remain unseen yet close enough to hear most of the conversation.

“I’m sorry, Casper,” Dena said.

Red Bear began to tingle, right down to his toes. That had to be Casper Ackers. He felt a twinge of disappointment that Dena was working with him. But he was thrilled to know that he was on the right track. Rock Creek would not suffer the same fate as the other towns. He and Jimmy could bring that man in, knowing he was nearby.

He studied the man; he was tall with short gray hair. He was wearing a long coat and he could see the man shifting a large rifle from one hand to the other.

“Ain’t good enough,” the man growled and Red Bear saw Dena shrink at the harsh tone. He realized now who Dena was afraid of, this man.

Suddenly the man whirled around. He turned in Red Bear’s direction and Red Bear knew immediately that he was searching for him. Flattening himself against the ground he tried to make himself as invisible as possible. But he heard his horse nicker and knew that was the sound that had given him away earlier.

“Shut up you stupid nag,” Red Bear hissed under his breath.

“It’s my horse, relax,” Dena said quietly, her eyes fixed on Red Bear.

Casper relaxed visibly.

“I’m not stupid,” Dena continued, sounding more and more like the girl Red Bear knew not the scared creature he had stumbled upon first in the hotel room and now out here. “No one followed me. I made sure of that.”

Casper nodded his head. “Remember what I said,” he said sternly and Dena looked down. Red Bear could see the defeat on her face even in the dark.

“I’ll send word when and where we meet next time,” Casper added as he began to stride away.

Dena waited a few minutes and then she walked toward Red Bear. She stopped directly in front of him. “You can get up now,” she told him crossly.

Red Bear rose to his feet and smiled sheepishly. “Thanks,” he said. He supposed he owed her that much for keeping his presence a secret.

Dena nodded. She began to move away from him, toward her horse.

“Wait,” Red Bear said suddenly. This charade had to end. “Where are you going? We need to go to the sheriff.” He caught her by the arm.

“You go,” Dena muttered.

“But you can testify against Casper Ackers,” Red Bear exclaimed.

“Testify?” Dena exclaimed. “Are you crazy?”

“I know you are working with him.”

Dena narrowed her eyes at him.

“Testify against him. That way you won’t have to go to jail.”

Dena did not even try to deny that the man was Casper. “The law listens to thieves?” she snorted derisively.

“Listen,” Red Bear said quietly. “I don’t know what you have done,” he began.

“You wanna know?” she asked shrilly. Not even waiting for an answer, she continued. “I started out by taking things out of stores. I finished with bank robbery.”

“You what?” Red Bear asked, shocked.

“That’s what the warrant says,” Dena told him defiantly. She spun around, refusing to look at him.

“Dena,” Red Bear tried once more. His hand went to her arm then traveled to her waist and he used both hands to turn her toward him.

“What?” she asked and Red Bear saw the tears in her eyes. “What do you want from me?” she said desperately.

“Nothing,” Red Bear said simply, pulling her close. He made the decision then and there; he would say nothing. She could have told Casper about his presence and she didn’t. He would return the favor.

But as his hands wandered up and down her back, he knew it was not just returning a favor. He did not want Dena to have to go to jail. He would not be just another person to hurt her and he knew from what little she told him that her past was not pretty.

As Dena wrapped her own arms around him, Red Bear held her tight. He smoothed a lock of hair back from her face and gazed into her upturned face. The jaded world-weary look was gone from those gray eyes and in their place was a strange mixture of fear and hope.

“What?” Dena asked once more but it wasn’t anger or fear he heard in her voice this time. It was a genuine question. One he wasn’t sure he could answer. Holding her close, seeing so much in those eyes, he wanted to kiss her, but he couldn’t. She wouldn’t understand. Not that he understood himself, but Dena would assume it was nothing, just a man using an available woman because the one he wanted wasn’t with him. It was not that. The attraction he felt for Dena was for Dena, this strange vulnerable girl who reminded him a bit of himself. And he had been attracted to her the minute he saw her, singing in that saloon. But this was a different kind of attraction, not just lust for an attractive woman. This time he wanted to know what was behind the pretty face.

As he continued to look at her, he began to wonder about her life, an Indian passing for white. What did she consider herself, white or Indian? Would she understand the self-depreciating jokes he sometimes made about Indians? Or would she be like Claudia and scold him or Mary who would look away in embarrassment? Or would she be like him and be able to laugh because crying was far worse?

“Nothing,” he answered. Then he smiled, releasing her but he chose to maintain the connection by taking her hand as they moved toward her horse. “I was just thinking about how badly you dress when I’m not there to help you.”

“What?” Dena exclaimed. She stared at him for a second then smiled back. “You are a strange man.”

“Admit it,” Red Bear said, his voice teasing. He cupped his hands so Dena could step into them. “You like it.”

As Dena swung onto her animal, she tilted her head to one side and studied him. After a long pause she answered, "Maybe I do.”

Chapter Eighteen

“Shorty,” Noah said softly, so as not to startle the figure at the stovetop but as usual Claudia did not acknowledge his presence.

It had been a long hard day. He hoped that he and Claudia could enjoy a nice supper and maybe be able to exchange a few words. Claudia had moved into the spare room and Noah missed her. This had been going on for five days. But he didn’t know how to ask her to move back, asking her to move back into their bedroom would mean he was ready to talk and he wasn’t. The guilt of their child’s death still weighed too heavily on him. And he could not shake the notion that Claudia blamed him too. How could she not? He was the one who had brought that disease into their lives. They were lucky enough to live, but their baby had paid the price for their health.

Jimmy had stopped by a few days ago but even his appearance had not helped. In fact, it might have made things worse. Noah had been on the defensive during his visit and Claudia had not even bothered to tell him to stop. That’s how bad it had gotten, Noah thought glumly. His bossy little wife couldn’t even bother to scold him.

“Shorty,” he said once more. But as usual there was no response. Noah’s exasperation bubbled over. “Fine,” he half-shouted. “I won’t go on the damned cattle drive. I’ll just let the cattle sit on the ranch and we can starve this winter. Are you happy now? Now will you say two words to me?”

“NO!” Claudia yelled, turning to face him. “I’m not happy. I am miserable.” She ran from the room and Noah slowly followed. He found Claudia on the porch, pacing back and forth.

“Miserable?” Noah said slowly, his anger draining away as quickly as it had come up. Her words had wounded him. “About the drive?”

“I am miserable being your wife,” Claudia spat out the words. “You never talk to me anymore. It’s like we are two strangers, not a married couple.”

“I’m sorry,” Noah whispered. “I don’t mean to hurt you -”

“But you do,” Claudia interrupted. “Every time you don’t talk to me you hurt me.”

“But you’re the one who stopped speaking,” Noah protested. Claudia had refused to answer him for five whole days. Every time he spoke she just acted as if she did not hear him.

Claudia stopped pacing and glared at him. “Are you really going to pretend that you don’t know what I’m talking about? Our child is dead,” she choked out the last word, leaning against the porch railing to support herself.

“I don’t know what to say,” Noah said, feeling the despair that was perpetually lodged in his heart seep into his limbs. He sat down heavily on the porch swing knowing he could not offer Claudia any support, not figuratively or literally. He just could not talk about the loss of their child, yet. The pain swallowed his words. Please, Shorty, he begged her silently. Don’t make me do this. Because he couldn’t, he just couldn’t.

But Claudia did not receive his silent pleas. “That’s the whole problem,” Claudia said coming to crouch down in front him. “I didn’t want you to go on the drive with so much still unsettled between us.”

Noah nodded. “But I have to go on the drive -” He needed time. The death of their child had devastated him. He was nothing but a walking ghost and for Claudia to expect him to be more was simply too much. He needed time; maybe time would help him forget how good his baby smelled or how perfectly he fit in the crook of his arm.

“You don’t have to,” Claudia burst out, jumping up. “You want to. That’s what makes this all so hard.” She backed away from Noah, shaking her head the whole time. “You won’t even try.”

“It’s not because I don’t want to try,” Noah explained, searching desperately for words that would sound rational. “I just need to go. It’s gonna be my ranch soon, I don’t want to depend on my father for everything.” She had to understand that. Ever since he had lost his leg, it had been one of Noah’s highest priorities, proving his mettle, showing everyone he was not just a puppet figurehead, while his father was the real power.

“I’ll go on the drive and then when I get back we can go away and -” Noah continued.

“Sure, Noah,” Claudia cut in once more. “That’s fine.” She began to walk toward the house and Noah knew she didn’t believe a word of his explanation. Maybe because if wasn’t the whole truth. He did want to go on the drive to prove himself, but he also wanted some time alone, to figure out what to do with his life. Because being with Claudia did not help. His presence only seemed to make her miserable, her exact words. Maybe if the two of them were apart, they would remember some good things about being together. What was that saying – absence makes the heart grow fonder.

The drive was the only solution he could come up with right now. It would give him time to mourn the loss of his child while remembering how much he loved his wife. Because being here at home did the opposite. Here all he could see were things that reminded him of the tiny life that had vanished all too soon, while the wife he loved only seemed to hate him a little more each day.

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