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Chapter 1

It had been an excellent day. The buffalo had been plentiful in their herd, allowing for many of the warriors of the Cheyenne tribe to hunt and capture their fair share of the lumbering beasts. Harvesting their meat had taken them well into the evening; a large bonfire illuminating the village of teepees that stretched out around it. All around there were copper-skinned Cheyenne men and women dancing around the crackling flames, part of the appreciation ritual that the tribe partook in after each hunt. After all, it was important to give thanks to Maheo, the Great One, for having provided the tribe with such a fruitful hunt.

 

Looking slightly out of place surrounded by the copper-skinned Cheyenne was a white man named Marlon Rinehart, who sat on an upside-down bucket a fair distance away from the fire. His friend Elsu had taken the object from a trader that had been found trespassing upon Cheyenne land; the fate of the trader was unknown even to him. Dressed in a simple outfit of a breechcloth, leather leggings, and leather boots that cushioned his feet, his chest remained bare like many of the Native men. He had kept his body muscled and fit with his day-to-day responsibilities, knowing fully well that keeping his body healthy was of the utmost importance. One could not take care of others if they could not take care of their own bodies.

 

His eyes were a distinct honey-gold, which matched well with his skin that had been leathered by the constant heat of the sun bearing down upon him. His face was unkempt with the stubble of a beard already claiming his mouth area. His hair was also wild and long, the tangled locks managing to reach all the way down to his shoulders. He normally wore his hair in a ponytail to keep it tied back from his face, but ever since the incident that had killed Marianne, he had shaved his head bald. It had taken years for his hair to grow back, and even then, it would never be the glorious mane that it had once been. Sometimes, he wondered if he wouldn’t be better off just keeping it shaved.

 

More than that, he was bitter. As he sat away from the rest of the tribe, his half-eaten meal sitting in a bowl in his hand, he found his thoughts once again turning to his past. It had been three years now since the loss of his beloved, yet the wound in his heart was still bitterly fresh. The rage that was firmly nestled in his soul was like a poison to him, and as hard as he tried, he couldn’t seem to rid himself of it. The emptiness brought about by losing his other half was just too much to bear at times, and it was easy to surrender to his sorrow. The settlers had taken everything from him, and they would only continue to take from him if they had their way. They cared little for who was wronged by their hatred.

 

He watched as a frail, short woman with long, white hair that reached to the small of her back slowly made her way toward the fire. Her skin was darker than any other member of the tribe, yet it seemed to shine in the light as she moved near the glow of the flames. Her dark green eyes reminded him of the sage that his wife used to tell him about that she’d seen when she was a young girl growing up back in the Dakotas. He remembered how it had felt to have her weight resting against his side, her breathing the only thing that he could hear in the stillness of the night.

 

He felt a tear dripping down his cheek before he realized it, the solitary drop splashing down on his uneaten food. He found that his appetite had left him, setting his bowl to the side, and focusing his attention once more on the old woman. She was a person he knew well. Ayita, the wise woman of the tribe. She was who he went to asking for guidance in the aftermath of his wife’s death. It had been completely by accident, and had he taken any other action back then, the tribe would have probably killed him. He’d stumbled across some of the Cheyenne’s warriors during a hunting party, and they’d knocked him unconscious and brought him before Ayita and Chief Raven Wing. She had been the one who convinced them he would do the tribe no harm and insisted his life be spared.

 

He could not bring himself to face her directly as of late, because he did not want her to see the hatred that constantly simmered behind his eyes that hadn’t subsided at all since they’d met. He didn’t want her to mistake his emotions as hostility toward her and the tribe. They had been his only saving grace, the refuge he could go to when he didn’t want to be left alone with his own thoughts and feelings.

 

He didn’t even live with the tribe. He had a house roughly five miles away from where the tribe lived, a beautiful log cabin that he had built for him and his wife with his own two hands. It had been his haven, the place where he could go so that the troubles of the world would not reach him. Now it was merely a testament to all that he had lost, all that had been taken from him. Most nights he couldn’t even bring himself to sleep beneath its roof, finding greater comfort laying out under the stars.  

 

He couldn’t even focus on the words that Ayita said, a tap on his shoulder forced him to turn his head to the side. He found himself facing a heavily tattooed young man only a few years younger than him. His brown eyes were gazing at Marlon intently like a hawk, the male gesturing toward him with a grimace. “You look troubled.”

 

“No more than usual, Elsu. My mind is the same storm that it has been lately,” Marlon replied, silently noting that he was beginning to get the grasp of Elsu’s native language, though he himself could not speak it.

 

“So, I see. You have not smiled in many a moon,” Elsu replied, the young man gesturing toward Marlon’s unfinished food. “Do you mind if I eat that? I am still hungry from the hunt.”

 

“Help yourself,” Marlon said dismissively, gesturing toward it with a finger. “Will go to waste otherwise.”

 

Elsu reached down and eagerly snatched up the clay bowl, scooping the food into his mouth ravenously. Marlon shook his head in wonder, marveling at his friends’ voracious appetite. “You know, you would probably do well to listen more closely to Ayita’s stories.”

 

“She and I are no strangers. I have gone to her many times to seek advice,” Marlon chuckled, giving his friend a playful swat on the back. “I don’t know how much more she can tell me.”

 

“To assume that one has learned all they can is the height of ignorance,” Elsu replied stiffly. “Ayita says that life is a constant process of learning lessons.”

 

Marlon couldn’t remember how many times he’d heard those words. Ayita’s life had been anything but easy. Still, she had never allowed herself to be overcome by bitterness or thoughts of revenge. Instead, she had said that this was just another example of how life gave things and took them away. Life was just as much about suffering as it was about blessings, and she took them all in stride. Though there had been times so hard that they’d shaken her faith, she’d accepted them as part of the journey of life.

 

Those words echoed in his mind as he rode into town the next day. Despite his lingering anger toward the settlers, the unfortunate reality was they possessed goods that he and the tribe would need. The winter months would be approaching soon, and that meant the Cheyenne would need assistance keeping themselves going. Especially with how large the tribe had grown. If the settlers were going to become a permanent fixture of the land, it was more prudent to maintain some form of truce. That was what Elsu had told him the council of elders had decided.

 

The carriage that trundled along the road a short distance ahead of him was out of place for the rustic town. Marlon was certain that it didn’t belong to a run-of-the-mill settler, and when it came to a stop and he saw a white man in an expensive suit step out of it, he felt that familiar flare of anger inside of him. Forcing himself to spur on his horse, he rode past the carriage and did his best to ignore its inhabitants as he rode into town. He was just grateful that the trip into town was a short one, since longer journeys tended to expose travelers to harsher aspects of life. Like the ragtag groups of men that had taken to sweeping through the town every now and then, sticking up the local bank or holding up a carriage as it attempted to make its way into town.

 

The rumors he’d gotten as of late were even more troubling. Elsu had reported that the mysterious pale strangers with their metal horses were seeking to lay down tracks all across the land and expand their town, and the rumors had been whispered among the various tribespeople despite his attempts to assuage their fears. He hadn’t believed that the settlers would move so quickly, but he’d obviously been wrong.

 

As he came out of the trapper’s shop and stuffed the small wad of cash he’d received into one of the sizable canvas knapsacks that hung on either side of his horse, Marlon caught sight of the same carriage from earlier trundling its way into town.

 

The coachman cracked his whip in the air, urging the horses that pulled the carriage onward. So disrespectful to their steeds. The poor things look like they have not drunk anything in days. When it finally came to a stop, he watched two large men step out of the carriage, followed by what could only be a woman. He could make out the flowing dress that she wore, as well as the large hat that concealed her from the harsh afternoon sunshine that blazed down on them.

 

Her dress was blue, like the sky when not a cloud could be seen. She stayed close to the smaller of the two men, casting glances around all the while.

 

 He didn’t know why, but the sight of her caused him to feel a pang in his heart. Wheeling his horse so it was facing away from the strangers, Marlon jumped up into the saddle and made his way back out of town. He hadn’t gotten everything that he wanted to get, but he was trying to avoid a run in with the carriage’s occupants. The sight of them was enough to get his blood boiling, and if he remained there any longer, he would make a fool of himself before the day was out. The last thing he needed to do was cause a scene.

 

The men looked just like those that had been there the day his Marianne had been killed, but he knew they were only alike in skin color. Callous monsters who had gunned down his sweet lady like she was just a wild animal because they’d mistaken her for a tribe woman. They’d claimed she’d belonged to a tribe that had recently waylaid the settler’s caravan and stolen supplies from them, but the Cheyenne had done no such thing. He had been in their house when he’d heard the distinct sound of a rifle being discharged. He’d rushed out of the house only to find his wife laying on the ground in a pool of her own blood, eyes unseeing.

 

How can they sleep at night knowing their money is covered in the blood of those they have wronged? Worse demons I could not imagine. Sometimes I question if they are even of the race of man, or if they merely wear our skins to walk among us.

 

Shaking himself from his thoughts, he focused on the dirt path before him. He would need to ride back to the village and warn them that he had gotten confirmation of the town expansion. They would need to be mindful that there would likely be many more settlers in the area in the coming months, and to be reminded that the situation should be dealt with the utmost caution.

 

They would shake your hand with one hand while sticking a knife in your back with the other, if you were not careful around them. And Marlon would not make the mistake of letting his guard down ever again.

 

 

Chapter 2

Jane Tinney’s eyes were wide with wonder as she gazed out of the carriage window at the lush prairie land that stretched out beyond the horizon. It was like an emerald sea of grass, the massive buffaloes that grazed before her eyes seeming like creatures out of storybooks. She’d read about them in one of the almanacs her father had in his personal library, but it was another thing entirely to find yourself within spitting distance of them. There was a small buffalo calf following behind its mother. Jane thought it was just the cutest thing.

 

The town, on the other hand, was underwhelming. Sure, it seemed to be plenty busy, some might even say booming. But Jane was still a little sore about having been suddenly moved without warning from the comforts of her home to this new and unknown place.

 

Her father hadn’t even told her the reason why they needed to come down, remaining vague and saying it was “for his work.” It all sounded awfully suspicious to her, but she didn’t dare to stand against her father. That was the loyalty that he deserved as her only surviving parent.

 

Her blue eyes were the same color as her sky-blue dress, her black hair braided down her back in a single line. Her skin was unusually pale, but that could be attributed to the large period of time she would spend indoors. Jane was not usually allowed to venture out without an escort, so it wasn’t like she had a lot of experience doing many things for herself. Most of the adventures she’d had in her life had happened in her father’s study as she read his various books to occupy her time. 

 

Her father had regaled her with tales about this place. It had sounded almost like a magical world right out of one of her stories, a place filled with cowboys and gallant men who could come by at any time to sweep her off her feet. She was certain her father was exaggerating just to keep her complacent, but at least he was making an effort. “Father, is this really the place where we are going to be living now? And how long will we be here? This isn’t going to be another six-month affair where we leave right afterward, is it?”

 

Her father, dressed in a brown three-piece suit, turned toward her from where he’d stood talking to her brother. He wore a top hat that obscured his short black hair and a monocle hanging from a chain tucked into his shirt pocket. His beard was neatly trimmed, his mustache waxed and ending in little curls at the corners of his mouth.

 

“I am afraid that I am not entirely certain how long we shall be here. What I can tell you is that you may as well get used to the scenery, because we will be here for the foreseeable future.”

 

“I was afraid you’d say that,” Jane muttered, turning away from them and glancing toward town. The line of stores had pretty much everything you could want in a town. She found her eyes gravitating toward the dressmaker’s shop. She had been thinking about having a new dress made for herself, and the dressmaker would likely know what the current styles of the area were. “Oh well. I suppose it could be worse.”

 

The three-bedroom house that they had moved into wasn’t too shabby either. The ability to have her own room near the back end of the house where she was unlikely to be bothered was an added plus. A new cage for me, my father’s favorite little songbird. The thought was bitter in her mind, but it made her feel guilty. Her father had single-handedly taken on the responsibilities of raising her and her brother, and she wanted for nothing. All she had to do was ask and anything she saw could be hers. It would just be ungrateful of me to bother him with my foolish little complaints.

 

Once she was led to her room by one of the servants, Jane busied herself with taking the time to look around at her new room. There had been three maids going about unpacking her things while chatting softly among themselves.

 

Jane politely dismissed them, telling them she would take care of unpacking the rest of her more personal belongings. Rummaging around inside of one of her parcels, she pulled out a silver-edged portrait frame. She smiled sadly, her finger briefly stroking over the glass before she sat on her bed.  

 

She set the only portrait she had of her mother on her bedside table. The frame held a picture of her mother and father side by side, her brother standing beside them and Jane held in her mother’s arms. She had only been three years old when the portrait had been painted. Her brother had been such a cute and carefree boy when he was younger, but as he’d aged, he’d become far more concerned with money. It had warped his personality, and Jane couldn’t say she approved of how quickly he’d jump at the opportunity to put more coin in his pocket.

 

I would like to be able to see some of the town for myself. Jane hung the last of her dresses in the closet and closed the door, resting her head against it briefly. Perhaps if I am extra polite, Father will allow me to venture around the town and take in the sights.

 

Stepping out into the hall and closing her bedroom door softly, Jane made her way down the hall toward the large flight of stairs that led down into the foyer. She found her father standing there with her brother, the two speaking in soft voices that she couldn’t quite hear. When they heard the soft creaking of the stair behind them, they immediately broke off their conversation and turned as one to face her. Her father had a serious expression on his face but did his best to offer her a gentle smile. “All settled in?”

 

“I’m unpacked, at least,” Jane replied amicably, giving him a small smile in return. “I was hoping that you would allow me a chance to go around the town and take in the sights for myself. Besides, it would be good to start to ingratiate ourselves with the other townsfolk, right?”

 

“You know my policy with new places, Jane. If you want to go out and about, you will need to be accompanied. You are a very important person, and all it would take is letting you wander off one time and you could be abducted,” her father replied, shaking his head. Anson Tinney had always been an overly cautious man, but Jane had noticed him growing increasingly more restless in the past few months.

 

“So, if I can find someone to accompany me, I can go out with your blessing? Why not Phillip? He doesn’t seem to be occupied at the moment, and it would be just as worthwhile for him to come take a look around with me,” Jane said sweetly, batting her eyelashes at her brother.

 

Phillip opened his mouth like he was going to refuse, but soon closed his mouth when his sister shot him a look over their father’s shoulder. She only ever asked him to go out with her when she was tired of being cooped up in the house. Every time he refused, she made sure to make his life miserable by going out of her way to annoy him until she got her way, so he knew better by now. “Okay, fine. We can go for a walk and take a gander at things.”

 

“I was hoping you would say that,” Jane replied cutely, smiling triumphantly. “Let’s not waste any more time. I’d like to have my walk around and be back in time for supper. I understand that the maids have prepared something extra special to celebrate our arrival here.”

 

“That’s right, Jane. I told the cook to pull out every trick he knew if he needed to. I look forward to seeing what that sly old fox comes up with. In the meantime, here is ten dollars,” her father said, pulling out the bill and placing it in her hand. “This should be more than enough to take care of the smaller things you might wish to pick up. Let me know if something strikes your fancy in town, and I can go take a look at it when I have the free time and pick it up for you.”

 

“Thank you, Father. I was just thinking about getting some new clothing in my wardrobe for our new surroundings. All of my fashion might have been in style back in the city, but out here, I’m sure the citizens have different tastes,” she said thoughtfully, so caught up in her thoughts that she didn’t notice her brother and father sharing a look.

 

That was how Jane found herself accompanied by her brother as they walked through the town together. Despite her earlier reservations, she was enjoying herself greatly. Children ran through the streets, amusing themselves by kicking an empty can up and down the dusty dirt road. Out on the balcony of the nearby inn, a group of adults sat talking and eating, large mugs of fresh beer sitting in front of each person. Many of the men they came across called out to her in greeting, a few coming up to her and insisting that she call upon them should she require anything. She was polite while thanking them but had no intention of ever taking any of them up on their offers.

 

“This place doesn’t seem too bad,” Peter said eventually, his eyes glancing around at their surroundings with that familiar mischievous gleam. “A few changes here and there and we could make this town into a proper city. Possibly even turn it into one of the biggest trading towns this side of the Mississippi.”

 

“Is money the only thing that you ever think about?” Jane’s voice was filled with incredulity. “You do realize that there are more things in life than how much your pocketbook contains, right?”

 

“That’s awfully liberal-minded of you, and while I hate to burst your bubble, I am afraid that money is what people are interested in. If you don’t have it, you suddenly find many of life’s doors closed to you. I just want to make sure that my doors remain open,” he said matter-of-factly. “Besides, there is one other thing that I think about far more often than money.”

 

“What is that, dear brother?” Jane scoffed, biting at the inside of her cheek to keep herself from smiling. He hadn’t changed at all since he was a kid, and he had used this line on her so much that she knew what he was going to say before the word even left his lips.

 

“Gold,” Peter replied smugly, already starting to laugh. Jane couldn’t help but join in with him, rolling her eyes in the process. Her brother was honestly hopeless sometimes. But so long as he wasn’t doing anything illegal, what could she really say to him? She didn’t dare risk getting on his bad side. That was tantamount to sentencing herself to spending the rest of her life until marriage trapped in her room. That would break her completely.

 

She smiled when she heard the sound of laughter, a group of children playing games nearby behind the small bank. She couldn’t see any of them holding anything, so they must have been playing tag or some other empty-handed game. It reminded her of when she and Peter used to play when she was younger. He’d only ever gone along with it with the pressing of their father, but she appreciated him for it nonetheless.

 

She just hated how he never sided with her in arguments against their father. She was forced to remain trapped at home while he could just go around and do as he pleased. It must be so convenient to be a man.

 

Remember to be grateful. You have many things that others don’t. She’d always had more than she needed, her needs and wants always given the utmost importance from her father. It was merely companionship that she was missing, when it all came down to it. Other than that, she had everything she could ever need. Didn’t she?

 

 

Chapter 3

Marlon was in the mood for something to drink that was a little stronger than water. The perfect place for that would be the town saloon, so that was where he headed. Now that the sun had risen fully in the sky, there would be far less people out and about in the town, as most would be busy with work. The only people out now would be the saloon crowd, and they were much easier to deal with. Most simply came to have a drink by themselves and stew in their own misery. Marlon was just another one of those people.

 

As he pushed open the two swinging doors that led into the dimly-lit saloon, many of the patrons turned their heads in his direction. He could see the looks of confusion on many of the patrons’ faces to see him walking in, the sight of a man with a bead-covered buffalo skin vest over a white dress shirt causing a slurry of muttering around him. He was used to their stares; it was a common occurrence when he came into town. The townspeople didn’t quite trust him, but he just chalked that up to the bad blood between the settlers and the Natives. The tribes were angry with the settlers for their blatant disrespect toward them, and the settlers didn’t like the tribes because they wouldn’t bend over backward to appease them. Anyone who sided with the natives was given a wide berth, and their loyalty was always questioned. Not that he particularly cared to take sides, but he’d happily throw his lot in with the Cheyenne should push come to shove.

 

They act like they should be treated like gods, yet there is nothing they have done to warrant such treatment. If anything, my experiences with them make me think that they don’t deserve respect, and I’m one of them!

 

That wasn’t fair to those who had never done him harm, though. Ayita had told him once that while life was created in many different shades, it was when they all came together that one would be able to see the true diversity of Creation and how it all fit together. He disagreed with her sometimes, but he always ended up listening to her advice. It had yet to steer him wrong.

 

A few of the patrons who were used to seeing him offered him a half-hearted greeting, which helped comfort him slightly. Still, a vast majority simply ignored him, going out of their way to keep their focus on their glasses so they didn’t have to acknowledge him. While it caused a pang of loneliness to travel through him for a brief instant, it was nothing that he wasn’t used to. The settlers and native people shared an uneasy peace, with wrongs committed on both sides. It would be hard to mend the hearts of those who had been wronged, and it was no secret that he was friendly with the Cheyenne.

 

“Long time no see, Marlon! You bring any special news from the tribes?” asked a deep, booming voice. Turning his head in the direction of the question, Marlon saw the familiar face of his good friend Tom Mornier. Tom had owned the saloon since he’d turned eighteen, and in the twelve years he’d owned it, his success had been unequaled.

 

Tom was the kind of man who would befriend anyone, the chubby, bearded man capable of getting a laugh out of even the most sour-faced patrons. It was that quality about him that kept Marlon coming back. Laughter was the only true medicine for one’s troubles.

 

“Nothing out of the ordinary. They just finished a large buffalo hunt, so I imagine some of the tribe will be giving me their excess meat and hides to trade in the coming days. They might even send some of their handcrafted jewelry with me, and those are quite a treat. However, they just got visited by some emissaries of the Lakota tribe, and they brought me this wonderful trinket that I thought you might like,” Marlon replied, reaching into the buffalo-hide pouch that hung from his waist and pulling out a beaded necklace. Bear claws hung from the necklace at every inch along its length, the claws having been dipped in white paint to cover up the yellowing shade of the bone. “Climbing Fox managed to kill a bear that stumbled across their village, that wouldn’t flee when they tried to drive it out.”

 

“These are from a real, live bear?” Tom’s voice was filled with awe, the chubby man’s cheeks jiggling slightly as he shook his head in wonder. “Those Indians sure are something else,” Tom said, taking it from Marlon’s outstretched hand and sliding the necklace over his head. He was positively beaming all the while. “How do I look?”

 

“You would put many a warrior to shame with such a fine ornament,” Marlon replied, grinning despite himself.

 

As Tom poured him a shot glass full of whiskey, the two chatted about the goings on in town. “I heard that a big shot involved with the railroad just moved into town. Last name is Tinney. Rumor has it that they are completely rich from multiple speculative holdings on the father’s part. They had a special manor built for them just on the outskirts of town, to keep away from the common rabble, no doubt.”

 

“Hmph, more men with more money than sense,” Marlon replied dismissively, lifting up the shot glass full of whiskey Tom had set in front of him, and downing it with one quick gulp. He was about to say something more when he heard the sound of a woman’s voice coming from the direction of the saloon doors.

 

“This isn’t what we agreed on, Phillip,” the woman said in exasperation, the saloon doors pushing open a moment later to reveal a beautiful brunette in a pale blue dress that matched the color of her eyes. Marlon swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. He had not seen a woman so beautiful since his beloved Marianne. He must have been staring for a while, because he heard Tom chuckle beside him.

 

“There’s an Eastern wind blowing, my friend. Keep your wits about you, else you’ll be swept away,” the barkeep warned, patting Marlon’s shoulder before moving down the bar to tend to some of the other customers.

 

“Leave me be, woman. We went on your stupid walk, so now I want a drink,” Phillip said dismissively, yanking his hand out of her grip.

 

“Fine! We’ll see what Father has to say when he finds out you left me unattended just so you could get drunk!” she hollered, storming away from the saloon doors and out of sight.

 

Marlon was moving before he realized it. He didn’t understand why, but he felt an unusually strong compulsion to go speak with this woman. He was off his stool and out the front door in a matter of seconds, and it took only a moment to find the woman, who was now sitting dejectedly on one of the benches on the saloon’s porch.

 

“Are you alright, ma’am?” he asked, doing his best to keep his voice neutral. He didn’t like seeing a forlorn expression on such a beautiful face. He noticed her stiffen as he spoke, her eyes only barely glancing at him from beneath the wide-brimmed hat she wore.

 

“I’m just fine, thank you,” she replied shortly, her tone dismissive.

 

“If you will forgive me for saying so, you don’t look like someone who is just fine,” he countered, smiling just a little. “Are you new in town? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you around here before.”

 

“We only just arrived earlier, so yes, I’m new in town,” she said brusquely. “What’s it to you?”

 

“My name is Marlon Rinehart,” he said kindly, ignoring the obvious moodiness she was displaying. He’d seen this enough times before to know that she was just trying to drive him off because he was a stranger. “I live a few miles away from town.”

 

“I’m Jane Tinney. We just arrived in town,” she said snippily, her eyes constantly darting away from him. “My father is in charge of the railroad expansion here.”

 

“Is Leavenworth going to be your permanent home?” Marlon asked conversationally.

 

“I can only hope not,” she said shortly, glancing around the town with a look of obvious disdain.

 

“Leavenworth hasn’t managed to impress you yet, huh? Must take a minute for the big town charm to set in.” He grinned, watching the corner of her mouth move in a small smile, though she didn’t reply to him right away. 

 

“I can only hope that it doesn’t take too much longer,” she said eventually, shaking her head gently. “That might just be the homesick part of me talking, though.”

 

“It is always hard to find one’s self in unfamiliar places,” he said, nodding along to his own words. “Loneliness can be truly all-consuming at times.”

 

“What do you do when it gets to be too much to bear?” she asked softly, speaking more to herself than to him.

 

“Personally, I come to the saloon and have a few shots until I don’t feel so lonely,” he said with a chuckle, noting the look on her face and hurriedly continuing. “That being said, I’m not one of these men who has allowed themselves to drown in the bottom of their tankards. My sights are still set on the future, whatever that may bring.”

 

“That’s awfully wise of you. Are you one of those medicine men that I have read about?” she asked curiously.

 

“I have been known to dabble in the medicinal arts, but no more than any other man of my profession would. As a trapper and trader, I have to be able to take care of myself if I find myself too far away from a doctor to be treated,” he said humbly.

 

“Interesting,” she said sarcastically, though her original iciness had faded just a bit. “You are just another one of the tribesmen then?”

 

“I know my tanned skin might make you think that, but I’m no Indian. I was just as pale as you at one point in my life. I just spend a lot of time out in the sun. I have many stories of hunts and adventures in other tribe’s villages as I traveled as a trader,” he added absently, his gaze growing distant for a moment.

 

“Jane, where did you go?” Phillip’s voice from inside the saloon caused the beautiful young woman to flinch, immediately jumping to her feet as if she’d been scalded.

 

“I’m coming, brother!” she shouted in reply, casting one last glance at Marlon. “Farewell, then.”

 

“Take care of yourself, Miss Tinney. Have a good day and a good stay,” he said genuinely, hoping that would help improve her mood just a bit. It was a crime for such a beautiful face to look so troubled.

 

Not wanting to make things awkward, Marlon made his way to his horse and rode back toward the village. He watched her walk into the saloon before he left, noting the sad expression firmly fixed on her face once more before the doors swung shut, obscuring her from view.

 

It was like watching a gate being closed to him, something he was no stranger to. There had been plenty of settlements he’d visited that had treated him with suspicion just because of the color of his skin, and he was always careful to conceal just how intimate he was with the various tribes he did business with.

 

That was what fascinated him about that Tinney woman. She was a settler, and apparently one who was very much taken care of. If she was being pampered in a big home with everything she could ever want, why did she seem so sad? Like an injured bird who spends its time looking up at the sky, yearning for the days when it can fly freely.

 

He was starting to sound like one of those obnoxious poets who would occasionally come down to the saloon and share their poetry with the masses, whether anyone wanted it or not. Still, it was not something he was unfamiliar with. Marianne had loved that about him. “You are such a fascinating man, Marlon Rinehart. Just the right mixture of civil and savage,” his wife had once told him playfully, while they sat together on their porch, watching the sun slowly begin to fade in the distance.

 

“You look like you had an eventful day,” Ayita said as she caught him coming in, standing with a group of the tribe’s children, who held baskets filled with berries in their hands.

 

“No more eventful than usual,” Marlon replied simply. “I just wanted to talk to you about any trading you might need done, since your tribesmen don’t like going into town.”

 

Truthfully, Marlon found his mind constantly returning to Jane. She had been standoffish, sure, but he could sense that she was a good person beneath her bravado. She was a stranger in a new land, and it was natural to be uneasy around new people. He’d just have to try to break the ice that seemed to be between them.

 

 

Chapter 4

As she sat and listened to her brother talk drunkenly with two gentlemen at the bar, Jane was once again struck by how unfair her position was. She always ended up getting dragged to places her father and brother wanted to go to, only to be swiftly ignored afterward.

 

At least when she’d been talking to that cowboy earlier, he’d seemed genuinely interested in her. His features had been sturdy and proud, and those eyes of his were almost hypnotic, and she’d been forced to keep her gaze away from him to keep herself from blushing.

 

  He’d been so handsome, with his slightly sunken cheeks and that proud chin. Not to mention he’d talked to her like an equal. He hadn’t attempted to control her or dismiss her feelings and had empathized with her instead. She hadn’t had a soul do that for her in a long time, let alone that of a man. His bare chest had been visible the entire time thanks to the buffalo skin vest he’d been wearing, and she’d been able to make out the faint scars that crisscrossed his skin. She’d never admit it to anyone, but she wouldn’t mind an excuse to run into him again.

 

Tired of keeping her brother company, she rose from her stool and made her way out of the saloon. She made her way home, occupied in her own thoughts and not casting a single glance behind her all the while.

 

A servant pulled the door open for her after two soft knocks, bowing deeply for her as he moved to the side to let her through. “Your father is currently in his study, but will be coming to the dining room in a moment if you need him, Miss Tinney.”

 

She found her father sitting at the sizable oak table that occupied a large portion of the dining room, a newspaper obscuring his face as he read. “Ah, you are home already. I thought I heard Jeffrey talking to someone,” her father said, setting his paper aside and immediately frowning when he saw her. “Where is your brother?”

 

“No doubt enjoying his tenth shot of whiskey by now,” Jane replied dismissively, dropping onto a seat across from her father. “He barely noticed that I was there, so I figured he wouldn’t mind if I left early. We both know he won’t be home any time soon, and I wasn’t going to be the person tasked with dragging his drunken behind home.” 

 

“I’ve told you how dangerous it is for you to be walking alone by yourself,” Anson replied, his eyes glittering with anger. “I am very disappointed that you would go against my wishes like this.”

 

“What else would you have had me do? Drinking is Phillip’s pastime, not mine. I need something else to occupy my time. I get tired of just being stuck in the house with no one but servants for company,” she said brusquely, returning her father’s gaze without hesitation.

 

“Well then, this should come as good news. You will be coming with your brother and I to work as the bookkeeper for the railroad project. My business partner thought it was a capital idea, and I can’t see why I shouldn’t entrust it to you. You are my most trustworthy child, after all,” he said smugly, lifting a glass of wine to his lips.

 

“But I don’t want to be a bookkeeper. That will just be a new type of prison with far less interesting reading material,” she complained, watching the vein in her father’s forehead begin to throb visibly. She knew she was poking a sleeping bear, but it seemed so unfair. Here he was, making another decision for her without so much as asking how she felt about it. “Can’t you find someone else to do it?”

 

“The decision has been made and the paperwork is filed. I would be made a fool of if I tried to backtrack on it now. No, this is something you are going to do, Jane. There is no room for complaints, and I will hear no objections. This is so I can keep you under my watchful eye. I am no fool and know just what a precious flower you are. Men would do anything to get their hooks into you, and I’ll be damned if they are going to. I’d sooner be dead than see you elope with one of these filthy working-class types. You are the daughter of Anson Tinney, and you are going to act accordingly,” her father said, his tone leaving no room for debate.

 

She swallowed the angry stream of words that rose in the back of her throat, managing only to give her father a small nod in reply. She didn’t trust herself to speak right now, and if she pushed her luck too far, he’d likely punish her for her insolence. “I guess I will prepare myself mentally for the new duties I’ll be performing. Excuse me.”

 

This was not like the father she knew. He had been strict while she grew up, but it had never been to this level. He had gone so far as to dictate her life, and any attempt she made to argue was met merely with that same angry glare and the unspoken threat of his wrath. Her father provided all the comforts of her life, and he could just as easily take them away. She’d heard her brother threatened with disowning enough time to genuinely fear that her father might one day turn such fury in her direction. That was part of the reason she never argued with him. She always acquiesced to him in the end.

 

And yet, would disownment be the worst thing? She didn’t seem happy where she was, so wouldn’t the increased freedom be worth it? Then she’d be able to live the kind of life she’d always imagined, where she could become a famous female gunslinger. It was foolish of her, she knew, but it was a secret wish that kept her going through all her troubles. One of the few things she had left that was hers.

 

As she rooted through the last of her things, she came across the two-inch-wide silver locket her mother had given her. It had her and her mothers’ initials carved on the front and back respectively, though the inside was empty. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been allowed to wear it. Her mother had given it to her a few days before she passed away, and she’d kept it hidden away in a safe place for fear of losing it. It didn’t help that her father had expressly forbidden her from wearing it in public, and always seemed to grow moody when she’d mention it.

 

Feeling a flare of indignation, Jane slipped the silver chain that held the locket over her head. She felt the bauble settle into place just above her breast, using her shirt to conceal the chain and locket from view. It gave her a small sense of satisfaction to disobey her father, especially over something like her mother’s jewelry. Just because she had passed away it felt like her father was going out of his way to bury all memory of her mother, and she couldn’t stand that.

 

If only her mother were still around. Perhaps she would have been able to fix her brother’s terrible habits. At the very least, Jane would have been able to enjoy a little more freedom. Her father’s grip on her had only tightened once her mother had passed. His personality had changed too, becoming colder and more distant. She loved her father dearly, and knew he loved her too, but there was a distance between them now that hadn’t been there before.

 

While sitting on the porch later that afternoon, she heard a soft voice greet her. Upon turning toward the source of the voice, she found herself greeted by a striking woman who appeared to be in her early forties. Her hair was pulled back in a neat bun behind her head, a pair of half-moon spectacles hanging from a chain around her neck. Her eyes were a surprisingly deep amber color, the hue reminding Jane faintly of the trader she’d spoken to earlier. “My name is Mrs. Dale. I live next door to you in that house there,” she said, pointing to the right.

 

“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Dale,” Jane replied politely, offering a gentle smile to the older woman. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?”

 

“I noticed you arriving with your father and brother earlier, but I’d been occupied up until recently tonight and could not pull myself away until just now. I didn’t seem to see your mother; has she not yet arrived?” Mrs. Dale asked conversationally.

 

“I am afraid that my mother passed away when my brother and I were younger. It is just the three of us and the servants now, sadly,” Jane replied, immediately noticing Mrs. Dale’s faltering smile and hurrying onward, “But it’s fine, you couldn’t have known.”

 

“Jane, dinner!” her father called from within the house, causing her to turn toward his voice.

 

“Coming! It was wonderful talking to you, Mrs. Dale. I hope to talk more later,” Jane said kindly.

 

“Feel free to call upon me at my home at any time. Money-driven and poverty-driven alike can be hard people to impress in this town. It’s not a bad idea to make a few friends, especially when you are a woman surrounded by men,” she said with a smile, waving before retreating back into her own home, leaving Jane standing alone on her porch once more.

 

Dinner proved to be even worse than she’d thought it would be. Phillip walked in, right as the table had finished being set, reeking of alcohol and stumbling all the while. He slumped into the chair across from Jane, humming gently to himself. “Good news, Father. I may have managed to arrange a lucrative business arrangement that will help our railroad endeavors.”

 

Yeah, and I’m the Queen of England. Jane didn’t think that her brother was the best person to be left in charge of business matters, especially given his track record. Her brother was the exact kind of greedy, self-centered egotist that her father had tried time and again to prevent him from becoming. Worse, her father didn’t seem to be intent on correcting her brother’s abhorrent behavior either. Even now, Anson Tinney simply nodded passively to his sons’ words, face still buried in his newspaper.

 

I would do anything to not have to be sitting here right now. Even the deliciously seasoned buffalo steak that their cook had served them was unable to fully whet her appetite, and she found herself pushing away her half-eaten plate a short while later. Her brother immediately snatched her plate and added her leftovers to his own, barely pausing for breath while he scarfed down his meal.

 

“May I be excused? I am weary from our travels and find myself yearning for my bed,” Jane lied, wanting any excuse to not have to watch her brother eat.

 

“A good idea. We are going to have an early start tomorrow, since I want time to show you around the office we’ll be using and get you set up before I have to ride over to the next town. I need to see a gentleman about finding some more labor for the railroad. We need more people to lay tracks, since many of the current laborers are, uh, seeking new employment,” Anson said, clearing his throat gently.

 

He was definitely keeping something from her, but she wasn’t going to call him out on it yet. She figured the best way to find out what he was up to was to let herself be close to the business. If she was constantly underfoot, he’d find it harder and harder to be able to keep all of his secrets. That would either cause him to let up some of the pressure on her or allow her to discover the cause of her father and brother’s shady behavior. Either way, a win for her.

 

 

Chapter 5

Marlon knelt with his rifle clenched tightly in his hands. He was waiting at the top of a tall hill that looked out on the wide prairie before him. It was just about time for the tribe to finish shoring up their stores of supplies for the winter month. They never took more than they needed, ensuring the buffalo numbers were able to flourish.

 

They only needed about six more of the large beasts, and he’d been sure to tell the other men as much. They’d had an issue during one of the previous hunts when a youngster named Hiding Deer had gotten a little kill-crazy in the heat of the moment. Ayita had spent the rest of the day lecturing the boy about the importance of not taking life unnecessarily. It was a lesson that some of the settlers could do with learning, as far as he was concerned. Ever since they’d shown up, the numbers of the buffalo had significantly dwindled.

 

Normally, Marlon would be fully focused on the hunt. Going after such large prey was a dangerous affair, even with his experience. Even a single mistake could prove deadly if he wasn’t careful, and he was well aware of that. However, try as he might, he just couldn’t get that woman from before out of his head. She said her name was Jane, didn’t she?

 

A wonderfully simple name for a woman whose beauty exceeded most women he’d seen by far. He kept seeing that small smile she’d given him replaying in his mind, a soft sigh managing to escape from him before he could stop it. He could make out a distinct set of tracks in the dirt, watching as one of the tracks strayed away from the multitude of other hoof prints that dotted the landscape. Looks like one of them strayed away from the herd. Best to go this way.

 

“You are quiet tonight,” Elsu said softly, causing Marlon to jump slightly in fright. His friend had been so silent that he’d temporarily forgotten he was with him. “I have been here the whole time and you didn’t notice me at all. I’ve been trying to get your attention for five minutes.”

 

“How do you know it has been five minutes?” Marlon asked, looking up at the angle of the sun in the sky. “Some kind of ancient Cheyenne trick?”

 

“I looked at the pocket watch you gave me,” Elsu replied flatly, sparking a laugh from Marlon.

 

“Right, should have figured,” Marlon replied apologetically. He’d completely forgotten that he’d given Elsu the trinket to celebrate his most recent birthday.

 

“Have you figured out anything more about those townsfolk?” Elsu asked, thankfully changing the subject. Marlon took a moment to consider the question, a thoughtful expression on his face. He honestly hadn’t learned anything about the newcomers other than the truth of the rumor of the railroad expansion and the man who was behind it. Aside from meeting Jane, and I can’t exactly tell him about that.

 

“Not yet,” Marlon replied finally, rising to his feet and brushing some excess dust from the knees of his breechcloth. “I’m still working on it. The townspeople haven’t exactly taken a shine to me yet, and the fact that I’m friendly with your tribe probably isn’t scoring me any points with them.”

 

They made their way quietly together through the grass, sights set on a small herd of buffalo that were grazing a short distance away from a tall tree. A single buffalo seemed to have separated from the rest of the herd, grazing serenely beneath the shade of the tree. Its thick branches would have been just large enough to support Elsu’s weight, but that was not how the Cheyenne hunted. “Aim for its heart, and I’ll be waiting in the wings to help you should it try to flee.”

 

Elsu was dressed in the hide of a buffalo calf, a common trick used by his tribe. Marlon remembered Raven Wing telling him about the rare buffalo round they would do a few times a year to harvest enough meat to keep the tribe going for months at a time. The tribes were usually 50-70 people, but the buffalo round would involve hundreds of warriors from many tribes. It required the combined efforts of many for the benefit of many, as was proper.

 

Crouching in the tall grass, Marlon glanced up just in time to watch Elsu’s spear hurtle through the air, striking the surprised buffalo from above. It let out a bellow as it felt Elsu’s spear drive down into its right shoulder, the creature bucking just in time to prevent the spear from inflicting a lethal wound. It lunged forward, crashing into the tree that stood nearby, causing him to scramble back out of the way of the large creature’s pointed horns. They might not be as large as an ox’s horns, but they could do damage all the same.

 

Rolling away and coming up on his knee, Marlon leveled his rifle and squeezed the trigger. A loud bang followed as the hammer slammed the primer, sending a bullet hurtling right through the skull of the buffalo. It crashed to the dirt a few feet away, the barrel of Marlon’s rifle still smoking as he slowly lowered it.

 

“What are you doing?” Elsu asked angrily, stomping up to Marlon. “Why would you do that?”

 

“What?” Marlon asked, clearly confused.

 

“I had that under control. You didn’t need to do that,” Elsu added, making his way over to the beast’s carcass and dropping to his knees beside it.

 

“I just wanted to help,” Marlon said, wincing from the anger in his friend’s voice.

 

“Well, your help has ruined everything. What if they see the bullet wound on the pelt?” Elsu asked, shaking his head in exasperation.

 

Marlon would have smacked himself in the head if he had a free hand. He knew better than anyone else that Elsu’s people did not believe in the use of firearms to hunt. “I’m awfully sorry, Elsu. Somehow it managed to slip my mind. I’ll tell you what, I’ll help you catch another one, and we’ll take it out with just a spear.”

 

“No, there is no reason for us to take another life just to satisfy my own personal qualms. You shot it in the head, so if we are careful, we won’t have to worry about the bullet hole. At least you didn’t shoot it in the body, or you would have tainted the meat,” Elsu sighed, retrieving his spear from where it lay and pulling out the knife that he kept sheathed at his waist. He wore the sheath on the base of his spine, ensuring it wouldn’t get in the way but would be accessible should he need it.

 

Marlon pulled out his own knife, the two men making short work of cleaning the small buffalo and harvesting its meat. Marlon had the idea of using the buffalo’s own pelt to help them carry the meat they’d harvested, the two making the slow trek back to the village. Marlon still felt guilty, but he felt a little better knowing that their examination of the meat had revealed no bullet holes he could see.

 

“Have you ever been in love, Elsu?” Marlon asked suddenly, surprised at the silence he was met with.

 

“What would make you ask such a thing?” Elsu asked, slowly struggling to form the English words. He grew visibly agitated before sighing and reverting back to his native language.

 

“Oh, no special reason. But judging from your response, I think I already know the answer. Come on, spill it. You’ve got someone that you’ve got your eye on, don’t you?” Marlon’s grin felt like it would break his jaw from how wide it was.

 

Elsu eyed him silently for a long while, his eyes drilling into Marlon like the falcon he was named after. Marlon often wondered exactly what went through Elsu’s mind as he gazed at someone. As someone on the receiving end, he was grateful that he and the tribe were on friendly terms. He’d hate to have Elsu as an enemy.

 

“Her name is Tayen,” Elsu said finally, his voice barely above a whisper. “She has the stars trapped in her eyes, and I find myself getting lost in them every time that I see her. I wanted to do something worthy of her to impress her, so I was going to kill a buffalo by myself and present the pelt and meat to her father as a gift.”

 

“It’s not too late for that,” Marlon said, hearing the faint rustle of something moving through the tall grass a few feet away from them. “I’m sure there is still a chance for you to capture one. This area is brimming with buffalo, and those other buffalo couldn’t have gotten far. I think I hear one of them now.”

 

“She cooks some of the best food that I’ve ever tasted,” Elsu went on, practically gushing at this point. “And she has the most beautiful voice when she sings. I get nervous when I try to talk to her because I don’t believe I am worthy of such a goddess.”

 

“Goddess? It sounds like you have it pretty bad for this girl. That only makes me want to cheer you on more. You have to let me help you woo her. I promise I won’t lead you astray.” Marlon grinned, clapping Elsu on the back.

 

“Shouldn’t these kinds of things be handled by a man on his own?” Elsu asked uncertainty, biting his bottom lip lightly. “I feel like it would cheapen the sentiment behind it if you helped me.”

 

“Nonsense. No man who ever accomplished anything of note did it all by himself. There is always someone in the background who goes uncredited, believe me,” Marlon replied immediately, raising his spear to point in the direction of a large shadow lumbering in the distance. “Anyway, here is your chance. There is a nice big one right over there just waiting to be taken.”

 

Elsu nodded, still looking unconvinced. He tightened his grip on his own spear, handing his bundle to Marlon. Grunting under the weight, Marlon watched as his fleet-footed friend rushed off in the direction they’d seen the creature go.

 

Killing a buffalo to impress his woman. That sounds exactly like the kind of thing I used to do for Marianne when she found herself doubting my love for her.

 

He felt that familiar pang of grief in his heart, finding himself missing his wife yet again. It was only now that he would never be able to see her face or hear her voice again that he’d realized how much he’d taken her for granted. She’d been the beacon whose light cut through his inner darkness, and without her, there was nothing to keep the darker emotions at bay.

 

His bitterness had only increased as the years passed, and he’d done his best to build up a wall around himself that could keep him from experiencing the pain of his grief. He’d tried to keep himself detached from people, keeping mostly to himself.

 

Am I doomed to suffer the same fate again? If things get violent between the railroad men and the tribe, will I be able to keep Elsu and everyone else safe? He prayed silently, asking for assistance in watching over the tribe he’d come to recognize as family.

 

Elsu returned a short while later, carrying two more bundles of meat wrapped up in buffalo hide. “So, why are you being so evasive?”

 

The sky above them was filled with a multitude of brilliantly twinkling stars that shone fiercely. The moon, nearly full, stood high and proud in the sky by the time they got back to the village. The sight of torches was a welcome sight, a large bonfire capable of being seen from a fair distance away.

 

“I’m not sure what it is I’m feeling. However, I’m not the one we’re focused on right now. Let’s get you and Tayen together, then we can talk about my problems.”

 

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