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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
“How is she?” Abby asked when Jimmy entered their home late that
“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.
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
“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.
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
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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
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
“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
And Red Bear got the feeling he was being insulted. Most white
folk - he was Indian!
“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
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
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
“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.
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.
“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
“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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
“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
“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.
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
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
“’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.
“Taking you away from the dance so soon. I know your friend just
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
“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.
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
“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.
“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?
“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
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
“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.
“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
“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
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.
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
“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
“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.
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
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
“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
“Don’t I always?” Red Bear smiled.
Dena paused in mid stride on her way to the closet. “Yeah, you
do,” she answered solemnly.
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
“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
“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.
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
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
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
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
“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
Red Bear rose to his feet and smiled sheepishly. “Thanks,” he
said. He supposed he owed her that much for keeping his presence a
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
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.”
“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
“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
“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.