A willing spirit a ghost.., p.10
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       A Willing Spirit, A Ghostly Romance, p.10

           Cynthia Sterling
 
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CHAPTER TEN

  Some time passed before Micah realized Tessa was not in the tent. He shot a questioning look at Deering, who, despite not understanding the Comanche language, seemed to be enjoying himself. "Where's Tessa?" he asked.

  "She went somewhere with one of the Indian women," Deering answered.

  Sun Bear touched his hand and nodded reassuringly. "My wife has taken Tessa to introduce her to the people. She will be well cared for."

  He sat back, a little uneasy, but knowing he could do nothing about it. He had no reason to think these people meant Tessa any harm, after all.

  "Tell them about the chapel I want to build," Deering whispered.

  Micah frowned. So far the chief had shown them every courtesy. It seemed wrong somehow to inflict Deering's vision upon them now, to talk of what to them must be one more way of trying to force a white man's ways on them.

  "Does the crow man wish to speak?” Sun Bear leaned forward and touched Micah's knee.

  Micah smiled at this reference to the preacher's black suit. He nodded. "His name is Deering and he's one of the white men's holy men."

  At the mention of his name, Deering perked up. He nudged Micah. "Tell him about the chapel. Ask him if he'll bring his people to hear me speak there."

  "He wants to build a special house on Tessa's ranch and hold a big meeting there," Micah explained. "He wants to know if you will bring your people there to listen to him talk about the Great Spirit."

  Sun Bear considered this for a moment. "Will there be good things to eat?"

  Micah held back a smile. "Yes."

  "And gifts? Gifts for my people?"

  Why not? "Plenty of gifts for your people."

  Sun Bear nodded. "Then tell him we will come."

  Micah turned to Deering. "He says he and his people will come."

  "Praise the Lord." Deering looked heavenward.

  Micah wondered how much praising the preacher would do when he found out he'd just agreed to feed the whole tribe.

  The Indians began to talk among themselves again. "They're talking about hunting, aren't they?” Deering scooted closer to Micah and spoke in a low voice.

  Micah listened for a moment, then nodded. In fact, Drinking Wolf was telling a story about killing an old bull buffalo.

  "I thought so." Deering smiled with satisfaction. "I used to sit around and listen to my uncles talk. They weren't much different."

  The young warrior demonstrated how he had ridden up to the bull and driven a spear between his ribs, aiming for the heart. The bull turned in anger, but the warrior held on, facing down the angry red eyes, feeling the snorting, hot breath.

  Micah grunted his approval with the others. How long had it been since he had sat like this? Yet now it seemed only yesterday, when he had hovered on the fringes of the groups of warriors, soaking up their tales, looking toward the day when he would be the one speaking, the one to receive the congratulations for his hunting prowess.

  He remembered his first hunt, the summer he was twelve. He was allowed to ride with the men, to carry his own spear and bow. He knew it was a test, to see if the half-white boy had what it took to be a man, to provide for his family and protect his people. To be a warrior.

  He had not slept the night before the hunt, but stayed awake into the early hours, praying for help from the spirits. The next morning, as the hunting party gathered within sight of the great herd, his pony danced beneath his knees, the way Micah's heart danced within him.

  His father had looked at him, a grave, proud look, and nodded in encouragement, before the group began to fan out, to encircle the indifferent herd. The only sounds were the striking of a horse's hoof on rock, or, as they drew nearer, the placid chewing of the herd. They pulled their circle even tighter, until Micah could make out the calves grazing in the center of the group, and smell the dusty scent of the animals.

  One old cow raised her head and stared right at him, and he was frozen, fixed in that steady gaze. Then she threw back her head and snorted, and the herd began to mill about in confusion.

  With a triumphant cry, the men surged forward, lances raised, bows drawn. Micah's hands trembled as he fitted an arrow in his own bow, and aimed for the nearest animal.

  His arrow merely glanced off the tough hide. He took a deep breath and fitted another arrow, guiding his pony with his knees until he felt he was almost close enough to reach out and touch the snorting, stamping beasts.

  He willed himself to stay calm, and remembered his uncle's instructions to aim between the ribs, toward the heart. He released the arrow and stared as it hit the hide and pierced it. Then the cow was on her knees, falling.

  And then she was dead.

  With a whoop, Micah rushed forward to claim his kill. A second cry answered his own, and he looked up to see his father, bow held over his head in triumph. Boy and man grinned at each other before whirling their horses and returning to the fray.

  It was barely a month later that he stood in the ruins of his village, staring at the bodies of his father and uncle, and smelled the burning hide of the very buffalo they had slain that day.

  A hand on his shoulder pulled him back to the present. He looked up to see Sun Bear staring at him thoughtfully. "You were far away from us."

  Micah nodded.

  "And where were you? Was it a vision?"

  "Only a vision of the past.” He glanced at his host. "I was thinking about what it is to be an Indian."

  "Tonight, you will be an Indian again.” He stood, and nodded toward the door. "Come. We must prepare."

  #

  Tessa could hear the singing long before she and Eagle Feather reached the bonfire. Men's voices rose and fell to a minor melody accompanied by a steadily beating drum and the crackle of the roaring fire. Though she did not understand their words, she felt drawn to them, pulled into that circle of people and light until the music was wrapped around her, seeming even to flow through her.

  A group of women on one side of the fire moved over to make room for her. She recognized Ten Elks and Painted Sun. The latter surveyed her and nodded solemn approval. Tessa searched the crowd for Micah, but did not see him.

  She spotted Reverend Deering, however, and shrank back from the sight of him. What would he think, seeing her dressed this way, with her hair down and her scalp painted? He was seated on the other side of the fire, red-faced from the heat, in the midst of a cheerful group of older men, who plied him with strips of buffalo meat and gourds full of no telling what beverage. In any case, he seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, laughing when the men laughed, eating and drinking, and taking in the strange sights like a wide-eyed child. His face showed no recognition when his gaze passed over Tessa, and she allowed herself to relax a little.

  Eagle Feather lightly touched her hand and nodded toward the northeast side of the circle. Sun Bear sat among his men, wearing a headdress made of a buffalo head. Next to him stood a tall man, dressed only in a beaded breechclout and low moccasins. Streaks of red paint striped his cheeks and nose, and more red paint highlighted his muscular chest. A black feather hung from his scalplock, and strips of rawhide bound his braided hair.

  Tessa's breath caught in her throat as she stared at the man, unable to look away. His eyes met hers, eyes as green as spring grass. They shone with a feverish excitement. She wondered if he had drunk from the gourds passed among the men, or if it was only being here, in those clothes and with these people, that made him look so vibrant and aware.

  From the admiring looks and whispered comments of the women around her, she knew she was not the only one who had noticed the handsome warrior. Her heart seemed to beat in rhythm with the ever faster pounding drums as she watched him move with the other men to a place on the west side of the fire. She knew she would never look at him again without remembering him this way, tall and proud, his perfectly formed body gleaming in the firelight.

  The singing stopped, but the drum continued its steady throb. From a distance came cries, and the
sound of running feet. Startled, Tessa turned to watch the approach of half a dozen young men, three wearing buffalo heads and skins, the other three carrying spears and bows. The 'hunters' chased the 'buffalo' around the fire, whooping and hollering, dancing and leaping. First one, then the others rushed forward to strike at the beasts with spears. They pretended to draw arrows and fire them into the hides.

  One by one, the 'buffalo' sank to the ground, and the young men claimed their prizes. As the last one fell, the crowd let out shouts of celebration. First the men, and then the women, were drawn into a dance around the fire. Tessa found herself pulled along with the crowd. Awkwardly at first, then with more confidence, she joined in the slow, shuffling steps of the dance, moving in rhythm with the chanting.

  This was so different from any dancing she had done before. The sedate waltzes and more lively quadrilles she'd always known did not require the participation of every part of her the way this deceptively simple Indian dancing did. It was as if she had relinquished control of her body to this other woman, this Indian squaw. Tessa herself could only look on in wonder, releasing herself to the sensations that engulfed her. She felt the heat of the fire, tasted the warm juices of the meat that was handed to her. The music pulsed through her, and her nose was filled with the perfume of roasting meat, woodsmoke and sweating bodies.

  A man came up beside her and offered her a drink from his cup. She raised her head and smiled, thinking it was Micah, but the eyes that met hers were black as coal and shiny as river stones.

  She stumbled, losing her place in the dance, and looked around for Micah. At last she spotted him seated on a rock, holding a bowl of food, a lovely young woman kneeling on the ground in front of him. He said something that made her laugh, and she leaned forward, her hand on his leg. Tessa's stomach twisted, and she quickly looked away.

  The Indian beside her touched her arm, and made the sign for a tepee. She realized with a shock that he was asking her to come with him to his home.

  She flushed and shook her head, backing away, running in to other dancers. The Indian did not pursue her. He shrugged and moved off down the line, perhaps to find a more willing woman.

  Tessa looked back to Micah, but the rock where he had been sitting was empty. Frantic now, she moved out of the circle, away from the crowd. She saw Reverend Deering, talking in clumsy sign with two old Indian men, and started to go to him, then thought better of it. She stood on the edge of the firelight, watching as couples departed the circle. Eagle Feather moved toward the tepees, followed closely by Sun Bear.

  Had Micah left too, with the pretty young woman? Was he even now in her tepee, making love to her in a language Tessa could not understand?

  She swallowed hot tears and shook her head. Why shouldn't he go with the woman if he wanted? He was a handsome, healthy man.

  She hugged her arms across her chest and walked away from the camp, toward the river. The music of the water rushing over rocks did little to soothe her troubled thoughts. She doubted if there was a woman here tonight who would refuse to share her blankets with Micah. Does that include me? she wondered. If that Indian brave who asked me to go with him had been Micah, would I have gone?

  She closed her eyes and the memory of Micah's gleaming body sent a rush of feeling through her. How could she have said no to him?

  But Micah hadn't asked her to go with him. After all, she was a white woman, different from him and from these people, with whom he seemed so at home. That was what she wanted, wasn't it -- to keep a distance between them, to show the white world, the town women, that she belonged in their circle? She had wanted that, even if it meant turning her back on a chance for love.

  The word frightened her, but what other word was there for the connection she was beginning to feel with Micah? She hadn't asked for this, hadn't sought it out, yet she felt pulled toward him like a leaf carried along on a flooded stream.

  She did not know how long she walked there by the water, fighting the confusion that welled within her. Weariness finally drove her back to Sun Bear's tepee. She hesitated to raise the bearskin door, listening for sounds of movement from inside. When all she heard was gentle snoring, she raised the flap and entered.

  A small blaze flickered in the fire ring. Micah sat beside it, stirring the embers with a blackened stick. "There you are," he said, relief in his voice and on his face. "I was debating going to look for you."

  He still wore his Indian clothes -- the breechclout and moccasins, though he had added a calico shirt in deference to the night chill. The skin of his thighs looked like burnished bronze in the dim light.

  Tessa sat a little ways from him. She stared at the fire, afraid to look into his eyes. "I went for a walk. Down by the river."

  He poked at the fire. A feeble trail of sparks rose toward the smoke hole. "I thought maybe you'd gone to spend the night somewhere else."

  Her face grew warm. "No," she whispered. "I wouldn't do that."

  "You were asked, weren't you?” His voice grew rough. "You don't know how beautiful you look. All the men were staring, asking about you."

  She hunched her shoulders toward the fire, afraid to take his flattery seriously. "I thought you had gone off with some pretty Indian woman."

  He didn't say anything for so long that she thought she had hit upon the truth. She swallowed tears, and blinked to clear her vision. "No, I couldn't do that," he said after a long while. "Not knowing I wasn't going to stay."

  She looked at him at last. Shadows danced across his face, hiding his expression. "I thought maybe you would stay. You seem so . . . so at home here."

  He shook his head. "Tonight was. . . different. It made me think. But I can't go back."

  She heard the regret in his voice, and the things he left unsaid. He didn't belong here. He didn't belong in Pony Springs. Where was the world where Micah Fox belonged?

  There were so many things she wanted to say, but she could find words for none of them. Across the fire from them, she saw Reverend Deering, snoring from beneath a buffalo robe. Further back from the fire, Sun Bear and Eagle Feather lay entwined even in sleep. Another dark shape slept apart from them -- wife number one, Tessa guessed. If she and Micah had been alone. . . she shook her head. No use thinking that way.

  "I'm tired," she said. "I think I'll get some sleep.” She went to a pile of skins near the door and lay down. She closed her eyes, but sleep did not come. She was still awake a little while later when Micah came and stretched out near her.

  #

  The whole camp turned out the next morning to say goodbye to the visitors. Reverend Deering, looking only slightly disheveled from the previous night's revelry, made a speech full of flowery language, inviting the Indians to visit his chapel when it was completed. Tessa suspected Micah didn't bother to translate most of it, though she was sure the gist of the message was delivered. Sun Bear presented the preacher with a beaded pouch, which pleased Deering immensely.

  Eagle Feather insisted Tessa keep the deerskin dress as a gift. She grinned with delight when Tessa handed over the lacy camisole and two of the petticoats as her own token of friendship. Micah gave the chief a bone-handled knife and received a buffalo-horn drinking cup as his gift.

  What with the speech making and gift-giving, the leave-taking took a good part of the morning. The sun was high overhead by the time Deering, Micah and Tessa reached the split cottonwood and turned for home.

  They spoke little. Deering looked tired, and Tessa was too full of emotion to speak. Micah was silent, too, the silence of one whose mind is far away, lost in thought. He had changed back into his everyday clothes, but she still detected traces of paint on his face. She couldn't look at him without an aching heaviness in her breast, and the ragged pain of regret for opportunity lost.

  Opportunity for one night of passion, or for something more? She forced her thoughts away from the question. No good would come of answering it.

  They were not yet off the reservation when Micah stopped and poin
ted in the distance. Tessa squinted and focused on a cloud of dust moving toward them.

  "Looks like we've got company.” As Micah spoke, he drew the rifle from its scabbard on the saddle, and laid it in front of him.

  The cloud grew larger, until she could make out the blue tunics and yellow-striped pants of a mounted patrol. Their horses were damp with sweat, and dust caked man and beast. "Halt!” A man at the front of the formation stood in the saddle and gave the order.

  Tessa recognized Major Finch, his face streaked with dirt and sweat. "Major, is something wrong?" she cried, something in his expression alarming her.

  Finch blinked for a moment, as if trying to place her, then his eyes widened. "Mrs. Bright. I didn't expect to see you out here."

  "We've been visiting Chief Sun Bear's band.” Reverend Deering seemed pleased to make this announcement.

  Finch's eyes narrowed. He looked at each of them in turn, coming to rest finally on Micah. "What business do you have with the chief?" he asked.

  A muscle on the side of Micah's mouth twitched, the only sign that the major's scrutiny angered him. "We were paying a social call," he said evenly. His gaze flickered over the mounted men ranked behind the major. "Why do you want to know?"

  "I'll ask the questions.” Finch rode closer. "Now tell me what you were doing on the reservation."

  Before Micah could answer, Deering interrupted. "I intend to start an Indian mission," he declared. "I invited the chief and his people to join me.”

  "And what were you and Mrs. Bright doing?" the major asked Micah.

  Micah's expression looked murderous, but the major never flinched. Tessa held her breath, fearful the tense silence around them would erupt in violence. Once again, the preacher spoke first. "Mr. Fox acted as my interpreter," he said.

  "And Mrs. Bright?” The major looked as if he were fast losing patience.

  "I went because Sun Bear is a friend of mine," she said. She looked back over the column of soldiers. They all bore the same intense expressions of men with a mission. They bristled with weapons; even the horses were hung with extra ammunition. A cold chill speared through her. "What is going on, Major?" she asked again, trying to hide her agitation.

  "Margery is missing."

  She swayed in the saddle, stunned as if the words had been rocks thrown at her. "When?" she gasped. "How?"

  He rode closer, as if to keep his men from overhearing. "She didn't return from shopping yesterday.” He hesitated, then added. "Sergeant Adkinson was with her."

  Foolish, foolish woman! Surely Margery had not run away with this sergeant?

  "Why aren't you checking the stage stations, instead of looking for her here, on the reservation?” Micah spoke for the first time since the soldiers' arrival.

  Finch scowled. "Sergeant Adkinson is a married man with five daughters. He has been with me since my first post. I have no reason not to trust him."

  "But you don't trust your wife.” Micah's voice held a note of bitterness.

  Finch's eyes sparked with anger. "I am aware that my wife is a young, beautiful woman, married to an older man with little to offer her in the way of material pleasures or entertainment. Such a woman might be led astray by an unscrupulous wanderer, a man who might take advantage of past friendship. . . "

  Tessa listened to him with growing alarm. "Major, what are you talking about?"

  He flushed and cleared his throat. "Lieutenant Hamilton mentioned . . . rumors. . . that my wife and Mr. Fox had a. . . relationship. While they were both at Fort Inge."

  Tessa stared at Micah. "Is this true?"

  She saw in his eyes that it was. The pain she felt surprised her, like a killing wound from a friend. Margery's insistence on seeing Micah again made sense now. Had she intended for them to be lovers once more? Had she succeeded?

  "It doesn't have anything to do with what has happened to Mrs. Finch today," Micah said. He turned away from her, toward the major. "She hasn't been with us. She isn't with Sun Bear and his people either."

  "Then where is she?” Finch's voice shook.

  "I suggest we pray," Reverend Deering said, bowing his head. No one moved, Micah and the major glaring at each other.

  "Gentlemen! Bow your heads while I ask the Lord's assistance in this matter.” Tessa didn't know when she'd heard such a note of authority in the preacher's voice. Automatically, everyone around them, including Micah and Major Finch, bowed in prayer.

  Tessa bent her head, but she didn't close her eyes. She couldn't stop watching Micah, wondering what other secrets she had yet to learn about him.

  #

  Will was amusing himself by sneaking up on jackrabbits and sending them bounding away when he came upon the Army ambulance parked in the middle of a field. A sad-looking man in a uniform appeared to be arguing with a beautiful woman in a blue dress. Those two certainly don't look like they belong together, he thought as he drifted closer.

  "Mrs. Finch, I really do think it's time we headed back for the fort," the man was saying. The fringe of hair around his ears stood out in all directions, as if he'd run his hands through it over and over again. "The major will be having conniptions."

  "If the major is so worried, then he can come get me himself.” The woman sat on the ambulance steps, arms folded across her ample bosom. She was altogether lovely, with red-gold curls and creamy skin. Even her button nose, though reddened by the sun, was just about the cutest nose Will had ever seen.

  The soldier -- Will noticed the sergeant's stripes on his tunic now -- pulled out a limp handkerchief and mopped his shining brow. "Pardon me, ma'am, but how will the major know where to find us?"

  The woman straightened, stretching her legs out in front of her. "I left him a note.” Shielding her eyes with one hand, she gazed up at the sun overhead. "I don't know why he hasn't shown up by now. I don't appreciate being left to spend the night out here on the prairie."

  The sergeant turned away, though Will thought he heard him mumble something about "it ain't exactly been a picnic for me, either." The woman jumped to her feet and began pacing back and forth in front of the ambulance. "What could be keeping him?"

  "Maybe he hasn't seen the note.” The sergeant climbed into the driver's seat of the ambulance and sat, chin in hand. "Where did you leave it?"

  "On his pillow, of course."

  The sergeant shook his head. "Excuse me, ma'am. But if the major is worried about you missing, he isn't likely to have gone to bed, is he?"

  She halted her pacing and looked up at him. "I. . . I never thought of that."

  The sergeant sighed and looked off across the prairie.

  The woman kicked a rock, sending it right through Will and bouncing over the ground. "All right then, we'll go back."

  The sergeant wasted no time gathering up the reins. "The major'll have my hide," he muttered as he waited for the woman to take her place inside. "That is, if my wife doesn't skin me first. I'll be busted so low I'll be cleaning horse stalls for the rest of my life."

  The woman mounted the steps of the ambulance and slammed the door behind her. She dropped onto the tufted seat, almost landing in the now-materialized Will's lap.

  "Ahhh!” She squealed and drew back. "Who are you?" she demanded.

  Will tugged his forelock and bowed. "Just call me Will.” He smiled broadly. "Everyone does."

  #

  "Amen."

  Major Finch raised his head as soon as Reverend Deering closed the prayer. "What are you going to do now?" Tessa asked.

  Finch's shoulders sagged. "I don't know. We've divided the area into sections and have been canvassing them half the night, but we haven't made much progress."

  "In East Texas, when someone was lost, they'd track them with bloodhounds," Deering said.

  "We don't have any bloodhounds here.” Finch paused, his eyes growing more animated. He turned to Micah once more. "But we do have you."

  Micah looked wary. "What about me?"

  "You were a tracker
for the Army at Fort Inge, weren't you?"

  "What about the men you have working for you here? One of them could help you."

  Finch nudged his horse forward, until his face was only inches from Micah's. "But you know Margery. You'd have a better chance of finding her."

  Someone who knew him less would not have recognized the emotions Micah wrestled with now. But Tessa saw the tell-tale tension around his mouth, the tightness in his jaw, the way his knuckles whitened around the reins. The man who had previously insulted him now asked for help. Would pride have kept him from relenting if the woman missing was not one he had loved -- one he might love still?

  "All right. I'll do it. I'll ride with you back to the fort and we'll start from there."

  "I'll go with you," Reverend Deering said.

  "So will I," Tessa echoed.

  Micah shook his head. "There's nothing you can do to help. Best go back to the ranch and wait."

  Tessa raised her chin, daring him to refuse her. "Margery is my friend. If she's hurt, or in trouble, she'll want a woman near her."

  "It's my duty to go where I'm needed to offer spiritual comfort and guidance," Deering said.

  "You can both wait at the fort," Major Finch said. He took up the reins and turned his horse. "We've wasted enough time talking. Let's go."

  They rode at the head of the column of soldiers, no one speaking. Micah sat with his eyes straight ahead, scanning the landscape, perhaps for some sign of Margery or the Army ambulance. Reverend Deering kept his head bowed, his lips occasionally moving in silent prayer.

  Tessa tried to pray, too, for Margery's safety and for her own forgiveness. Her thoughts were like a twisted skein of yarn. Pull one strand and no telling where it would lead. One moment she was fearful for Margery's safety, the next she was angry at her friend for trying to seduce Micah right beneath her eyes. And then she was remorseful, knowing she had no claim to Micah. He had promised her nothing beyond a pledge that he would stay with her until her arm healed. And she had given him nothing in return but his pay at the end of each week and a place to sleep.

  The picket greeted them at the gate of the fort with word that no news had arrived regarding Mrs. Major Finch or Sergeant Adkinson. Men stopped to stare as the three civilians rode in alongside the major, but none said a word as he led them toward his quarters. "The last time I saw her was yesterday morning," he told them as they halted before the neat white house. "She said she was going into town to buy some ribbon to trim a hat."

  "I saw her there," Tessa said. "She seemed fine.” She gave the major a sympathetic look. "She said she was bored."

  Micah swung down off his horse and wound the reins around the porch railing of the major's home. "I'd like to go inside and look around," he said.

  "Of course.” Finch led the way. Tessa thought perhaps she and Deering should wait outside, but the major held open the door and motioned for them to follow Micah inside.

  Tessa stood by the front window while Finch led Micah back to the bedroom. What must it feel like to show that room to a man who had one time bedded your wife? But then, Margery had not been the major's wife then, had perhaps not even known him. Tessa knotted her hands into fists and pressed them into her stomach, as if she could squeeze out the ugly jealousy that plagued her.

  The two men emerged from the bedroom a moment later. Micah held a sheet of notepaper in his hand. He showed it to Tessa. Darling, I'm so anxious for us to have some time alone. I've gone out with Sergeant Adkinson. Come for me and we will send him back alone. Love, M.

  "How could she be so foolish?” Finch took the note and crumpled it in his fist. "Does she want to ruin me?"

  "She only wanted you to herself for a little while.” Tessa tried to ease his suffering.

  "I don't have the luxury of time to myself! I have men depending on me. A whole community beyond these walls looking to me for protection. I can't just go chasing off across the prairie for some. . . some dalliance!"

  Micah adjusted his hat on his head. "Come on, we'd better go. Take me to the stables and let's talk to the officer there. Maybe he remembers seeing something."

 

 

 
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