Publisher: Ballantine Books (July 31, 2001)
RANCHER SEEKING WIFE. For Kate Whittington, the modest words of a newspaper ad are the answer to her desperate prayers. Daughter of a dockside harlot and raised in a bleak orphanage, she has no prospects in the unforgiving Maine village of her birth. Correspondence from the lonely Texas widower looking for a mail-order bride sparks tempting dreams of a house, a family, and a future in a land filled with possibilities.
Kate arrives at the magnificent Lone Star Ranch eager to meet her new husband. Instead she is greeted by the news that Reed Benton has been wounded during a raid on a Comanche village and has returned with a prisoner--a wild-looking young boy who may be his long lost son. Even more shattering, however, is the fact that Reed has never heard of Kate, never wrote the searing letters that charmed her heart.
Reed Benton doesn't want a wife. But he does need someone to look after the boy--a bitter reminder of a past ravaged by lies and betrayal. It will take a miracle to heal these two damaged souls . . . or the faith of one woman with nothing left to lose but her heart.
Summer Moon is a deeply moving story of broken promises and new beginnings, crafted by a true master of romantic fiction.
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"Turn your face to the wall, Katie, and stop that coughin'." With her chest and throat burning, racked with chills that shook her thin frame, nine-year-old Katie Whittington huddled in her narrow bed.
"Katie, I mean it. Stop it now."
Only half-awake, at first she thought she had dreamed her mother's voice, so familiar, tinged with a hard-edged, soulless quality that held no love. But then she heard it again, clearly and for real, and the sound burrowed into sleep-fogged corners of her mind, waking her completely. There were the other sounds, too. Throaty moans, whimpers, sharp, keening cries. A man's harsh, ragged breathing. The whining protest of coiled bedsprings from across the cramped, cluttered room.
Katie rubbed her eyes and tried to hold back the hollow, jarring cough, but it erupted anyway. She covered her mouth with both hands and listened to the coupling noises, kept her back to the room and hoped that Mama wouldn't yell at her again.
She lay there pretending to sleep through the noise, painting pretty pictures in her head, dreaming of another life, another world for her and Mama-the kind of world she had only glimpsed from afar, the kind she could barely imagine.
In her lovely dream world, she and Mama wore pretty dresses, clean dresses, with starched lace and ruffles, and there were pretty hats to match. The weather was always warm and sunny, and whenever they walked down the street, no one stepped aside or turned away. No one pointed at them or whispered as they strolled along in their pastel finery.
Mama had tried to teach her to ignore the stares and whispers of the townsfolk, but the rudeness still cut Katie to her soul, and it always would.
She hugged the torn wool blanket and coughed again, then wiped the palm of her hand on the dirty sheet that was little more than a rag.
The linens in her dream home would be soft and clean. There would be a fancy yellow cover on her bed, too, just like one she had seen through the window of a big white house up on Poplar Street. She would have lace curtains, fancy as snowflakes that would never melt, hanging at every window. The sun would stream through them, casting strands of precious yellow gold around her very own room-a room bigger than the shack she lived in now. There would be pretty china plates piled high with more food than any one person could ever eat all by herself.
The roof would never leak. The windows would glisten, and there would not be even one single crack in them. Wind would never sneak through holes in the windows or walls.
She shivered, her teeth chattering. Without warning, she started coughing again, but this time it went on and on until she lay on her side gasping for air like a dying fish.
"Jeezus, can't you shut that kid up?"
Katie rolled herself into a tight ball, hugging the thin blanket around her shoulders. Her hands were stiff with cold, her feet nearly numb even though she had climbed into bed in her heavy shoes and socks.
She tried to picture her pretty dream house and all the lovely dresses again, and the plates piled high with hot food.
When the images would not come, she looked up at the frosted windowpane above her head. Between the ripped curtain and halo of frost crystals, she could see a sliver of moon and one lone star shining in the night sky.
She closed her eyes and wished upon that star. She wished all her dreams would come true. Then she opened her eyes, thankful that the moon was not full tonight.
On moonless nights it was easier for her to disappear in-side herself and shut out the sound of Mama and the men. On moonless nights she was less tempted to watch.
But on nights when the moon hung full and heavy in the starless sky, she would silently turn away from the wall, stare through the milk-white light, and watch the shapes writhing on the bed. She would peer over the edge of her blanket and watch as Mama entertained the men who came scratching at the door.
* * *
She must have fallen asleep, for the next thing she knew, Mama's hand was on her shoulder, shaking her awake. The room smelled of burning whale oil. The single lamp on the crate beside Mama's bed cast a weak halo in the corner.
"Katie, get up and put your coat on."
Mama stripped off the blanket and tossed Katie the ugly green wool coat that some little girl across town had outgrown. They had found it in the bottom of the Christmas charity box that the "self-righteous do-gooders" (as Mama liked to call them) had left sitting on the front stoop last year.
Suffering through another fit of coughing, wiping rusty phlegm on the sheet, Katie sleepily protested. "It's still the middle of the night, Mama."
"Get up. We have to go."
"Where? Where do we have to go in the dark? It's cold out," Katie whined.
Mama didn't answer.
Katie pulled herself up, climbed off the bed. Mama held Katie's coat as she shoved the girl's arms into sleeves that did not cover her wrists. Katie looked around for her faded red scarf, but Mama grabbed her arm before she could find it.
"Where are we going?" Mama would not look at her, and Katie began to worry and wonder why she was acting so strangely. "I'm sorry I keep coughing, Mama. I can't help it."
"You almost lost me a night's wage."
Before she could promise not to cough again, Katie doubled over with another spasm.
Her mother pulled a tattered cotton hankie out of the bodice of her torn gown and handed it to her. Then she grabbed her by the wrist, dragged her across the room, and opened the door. Katie ducked her head to avoid the blustery wind that sailed in off the sea and tried to keep up as her mother tugged her down one cold, deserted street after another.
Katie knew most of the lanes near the wharf by heart. They had trodden them since she could walk, she and Mama. They lived from hand to mouth on the money that the sailors and fishermen paid Mama when she took them to her bed. When times were very hard, they lived on do-gooder charity.
As they passed beneath a street lamp Katie glanced up at the familiar lines and angles of her mama's thin face. Her mama was looking straight ahead with her jaw set.
They were climbing now, up the hill, away from the wharf and the ramshackle houses that lined the narrow by-ways and shops close to the water. Katie fought for breath as they ascended. The houses up here were larger, prettier, and surrounded by trees, part of a forest that had once grown all the way down to the sea.
Well into unfamiliar territory now, Mama turned an-other corner. Barely able to do more than shuffle behind her mother, Katie lifted her head and saw a tall bell tower and the steeple of a brick church. Her eyes tearing from cold, she struggled to read the sign on the front of the building.
Mama was fairly dragging her now, walking faster, more determined.
"Ma-ma?" Katie had to gasp for air. She wiped her eyes with the kerchief.
"It's somethin' I have to do, Katie-girl. Somethin' I should have done long ago."
Mama's huge brown eyes were watering from the cold, too. A fat tear slipped down her bony cheek.
The freezing night air, heavy and damp off the sea, burned Katie's lungs. She had never set foot inside a church before. In awe, she stared at a ghostly white statue of a sad-faced young woman in a niche above the door. Something about the statue made her whisper.
"Are . . . we going . . . in there?"
The building looked old and sturdy. It was probably warm as toast inside. If she could just sit down and catch her breath, maybe close her eyes for a bit-
Mama tugged on her arm when Katie kept staring at the statue. Katie sighed when they hurried past the church and the small graveyard beside it.
Except for the sound of their hollow footsteps, the neighborhood around them was silent. Not a single lamp was lit inside any of the big houses lining the street.
Suddenly Mama stopped to open a small iron gate in a low fence bordering the yard of another brick building, one almost as big as the church. The gate clanged shut behind them, ominously loud, with a sound that shattered the silence.
The cobblestone walk that led up to the front of the brick building was patched here and there with dirty snow left from the last snowfall. Dead leaves trapped since fall peeked through. Katie lifted her head.
Mama had already started up the six wide steps to the front porch. Katie's legs gave out after the first three. She knelt on the stair, doubled over, coughing. Mama stood over her.
"I can't lift you, Katie."
"I know, Mama," she whispered. She struggled to her knees and with Mama pulling on her arm, made it to the porch. "Can I just sit here a minute?"
Mama started beating on the heavy wood door with her fist.
Above the door hung a small gold-lettered sign. There was another statue, too. Smaller, but it was the same sad lady who stared down at her with her empty, marble eyes.
"Saint Per-petua's Home for Orphan Girls."
Katie slowly read the words again, faster this time, and frowned. They didn't know any orphan girls.
Her mother pounded on the door again, then whirled around and knelt down beside her. She grabbed Katie by the shoulders, leaned so close their noses almost touched.
Mama was whispering frantically now, her raspy voice ragged and hushed. She talked fast, as if her mind were running a race with her tongue.
"This is for the best, Katie. Someday when you realize that, I hope to God you'll forgive me. I should have done this when you were born so's you wouldn't remember. I've been selfish, Katie-girl, trying to keep you with me, but it ain't workin' out, see?"
Panic squeezed Katie's heart and lungs. She couldn't breathe anymore. "Mama-" She let go of the kerchief and desperately grabbed hold of Mama's coat sleeves.
"I gotta do it. Don't you see, Katie? What kind of a life are you going to have, growin' up with me in that shack? Followin' me around? It's bad for both of us, you and me."
"You're scaring me," Katie wailed.
Mama's eyes narrowed and her bottom lip trembled uncontrollably-that frightened Katie more than anything. "I'm leavin' you here with the nuns where you'll have a warm bed and plenty to eat."
Katie stared in horror at the big door and the gold-lettered sign. Inside, someone had lit a lamp. Yellow light bled through plain white curtains. Her heart began to pound in her ears.
Mama's fingers tore at hers as she tried to push her away.
"Let go, Katie!" Mama shoved her away. "Don't make this worse for me than it already is."
Having freed herself, Mama stood up; she stepped back as Katie tried to grab hold of the uneven hem of her coat. Mama dragged the cuff of her sleeve across her eyes and then wiped her nose.
Katie jerked around at the chill whine of the front door's hinges. An elderly woman wearing eyeglasses and clothed entirely in black stuck her head out, blinking against the icy chill.
"Yes? Who's there?" The woman had a gentle voice, but Katie was still frightened.
Katie expected her mother to answer, but when she turned around, Mama was already down the cobblestone walk, hurrying through the little iron gate.
"Mama!" Katie strangled on the sound, choked on a cough. She struggled to her knees, grabbed the column of the porch rail beside her, clawed her way to her feet.
The iron gate clanged with a lonely, hollow, terrible finality. "Don't leave me here, Mama! I'll be good." Her scream echoed through the empty streets. She was gasping between sobs, fighting the dizziness that clouded her vision.
As she wilted toward the cold wooden porch floor where Mama's torn white hankie lay, Katie felt the old woman's arms close around her, heard the clack of wooden beads and a hushed prayer whispered beside her ear.
"I won't cough, Mama," Katie sobbed, staring at the empty walk through a blur of tears. "I . . . promise. I'll . . . be good."
Twenty Years Later
Saint Perpetua's School for Orphan Girls
Kate awakened, heart pounding, blood racing. She did not move until her pulse settled back into a slow, steady rhythm; then she drew back the sheet and slowly slipped out of bed. Moonlight spilled across her pillow.
She had long ago given up trying to sleep when the moon was full. Nights bathed in moonlight held too many memories of the life she had lived with her mother.
It was fall again. Maine nights had grown desperately cold already. Kate shivered as she walked through a puddle of milk-white light to the only window in her sparsely furnished attic room. A utilitarian piece of unbleached muslin hung limp before the pane, as unadorned as everything else in this world of routine and orderliness where she had spent the better part of her life.
I stayed too long.
Kate drew aside the curtain and stared back at the man in the moon, unable to think of anything except what Mother Superior had told her after dinner when she had called her into the office: "I received word today that the archdiocese is closing the school at the end of the month, Katherine. We sisters are being sent to a new church school in Minnesota. The girls will be relocated, but I'm afraid that you will have to find other employment. I'm so sorry, Katherine. I wish it could be otherwise, but there is nothing I can do."
Eleven years before, desperately in need of another teacher, the good Sisters of Saint Perpetua had asked her to stay on after graduation. She was given room and board and a small stipend in exchange for teaching history and elocution to girls of all ages.
At eighteen, rather than face the streets of Applesby, she had accepted the offer without hesitation, knowing that someday she would have to go out into the world again. She promised herself that one day she would resurrect her old dreams, that she would have that pretty little home of her own and a family to hold dear.
As time slipped away and spinsterhood crept upon her, she devoted eleven years to Saint Perpetua's orphan girls and all the joys and challenges of dealing with them. She had made a home here, one that was safe and warm and familiar. The nuns and the orphans had become her family.
She had a certificate of education. She could read and write in Latin. She was a teacher, a scholar. A spinster with no living relation. The thought of having to leave after so long filled her heart with dread.
She had a little money put by, surely enough on which to survive until she found other employment. She would have to find another place to live-no easy task in a hamlet where her mother had been the town whore.
She had nowhere to go, nowhere to turn, and no one to turn to-not even her mother. On Kate's eleventh birthday, Mother Superior had told her that the old shack near the wharf had burned down, that her mama had died, trapped inside.
Even in death, Mama had been infamous.
Kate could not go to her mother and tell her that she had forgiven her abandonment, or that she had cried herself to sleep for months, missing her mama more than she would have missed her heart if it had been taken from her. Now she looked out the window at the round face of the man in the moon.
"Where will I go? What will I do?"
The moon man smiled back.
Or perhaps he was laughing at her. She could not tell.
* * *
At the end of October, when the butcher made his final call to the nuns for an accounting, he found Kate standing outside the kitchen door with a hand-me-down satchel in hand. When he asked where she was going and she said that she did not really know, he took pity on her and told her she was welcome to rent the empty room above his shop. He was middle-aged and married, a portly man with fingers thick as the sausages he stuffed, and almost entirely bald.
With no alternative in mind, Kate accepted. She rode the butcher's cart back to the shop, a sturdy whitewashed building near the center of town that was frequented all day long by housewives and maids.
The room was adequate and clean, a refuge where Kate spent the better part of the morning scouring up the courage to go out and find employment.
That afternoon, the butcher's wife knocked timidly on the door and told her that she would have to leave on the morrow.
"Not that we don't want you here, you see. It's just that, well, some folks still remember your ma, and folks tend to gossip. We can't afford to have our business ruined, you understand. It's nothing against you, of course."
That was how Kate learned that Applesby had not forgotten Meg Whittington-that like Mama's, her name was still as tarnished as an old copper pot.
She packed her somber dresses and scant personal belongings again. The next day she held her head high, kept her tears inside, and moved on.
* * *
She rented a room in an old, gray weather-beaten shack by the wharf. It belonged to a sickly old woman in need of coin more than she cared about Kate's name or her mother's reputation. The stoop sagged and the corners of the front door had been scratched raw and splintered by the old woman's flea-bitten dog.
It reminded Kate so much of the places she had lived with her mother that once inside the small musty room, she sat down on the lumpy mattress and burst into tears.
To escape the dreary place, she pulled herself together, put on her hat, and picked up her crocheted reticule-a misshapen, handmade gift from one of her girls. She slipped the drawstrings over her wrist and walked away from the wharf, up Main Street and toward the remnants of the tall evergreen forest that once grew down to the sea.
She could not help but notice that some of the older folks stared as she passed by. Slowly the shame she felt as a child began to attach itself to her again.
She drew herself up tall and straight and walked on. The stares of passersby confirmed what her mirror had always revealed-she was the image of her mother. She had grown up looking into a reflection of her mother's eyes, wide-set and dark brown. She thought her lips too full, her mouth far too toothy, like her mama's, so she never smiled too wide. Her arms and legs were long, her waist thin, her breasts embarrassingly full. Thankfully, the few serviceable dresses she owned were unadorned and drab and so overly modest that they did not call attention to her figure at all.
She never thought she'd experience that old shame again, but the sting was uncomfortably familiar, even after all these years.
She stopped by the printer's and purchased a copy of the Applesby Sentinel; then she strolled over to the small park in the middle of the town square. She chose an empty bench beneath a maple covered with dried leaves that refused to fall. The paper snapped as she folded it back on itself, the corners luffed in the same breeze that set the maple leaves whispering. She began to scan the advertisements.
Since the school term had already begun, she doubted she would find a teaching position, but someone in a nearby town was surely in need of a nanny.
Quickly glancing past advertisements for real estate, gents' clothes, and Aladdin stoves, she found one ad seeking a maid for a boarding house in a village just up the coast. There was another for a seamstress, but she had no talent for sewing.
A lumbermill needed a cook, but cooking was out of the question, too, unless the men were of strong constitutions. Whenever she was on kitchen duty, the nuns always offered up extra prayers.
Suddenly a small, boxed advertisement set off with fancy block type one-third of the way down the page caught her eye.
RANCHER SEEKING WIFE SEND A PHOTOGRAPH WITH AN INTRODUCTORY LETTER TO: REED BENTON LONE STAR RANCH, TEXAS
Kate slowly lowered the page to her lap and stared down at the words.
Rancher seeking wife.
Her long-buried dream shimmered like a mirage until the letters on the page blurred.
All those secret wishes, all those hopes tucked away in the bottom of her heart, dreams that had faded over the years she devoted to the students of Saint Perpetua's.
What if she were to leave Maine forever?
What if she were to reach out for her dream?
She ran her finger over the bold type, closed her eyes, and turned her face toward the fragile fall sunlight. Just the word Texas conjured all kinds of images. Wild, wide open spaces. Cattle and cowboys. Indians. A handful of knowledge that she had gleaned through reading various periodicals and accounts over the years.
A place to start over. A place to settle down where no one recognized her. Perhaps even a place to start a family. When a dying leaf drifted down from the maple and touched her cheek, she opened her eyes. The breeze whipped across the square, picked up a few fallen leaves, and sent them scuttling in a whirlwind dance. Kate lifted the lumpy reticule and slid the crochet along the draw-strings. Her savings lay at the bottom of the bag, a wad of carefully folded bills and a few coins.
Surely there was enough to spare for a photograph.
Surely there was enough to gamble a bit of it on a dream.
Seven Months Later
Texas Ranger Company J.
Spring was bleeding into another long, hot summer of raiding and retaliation, another round of blood and death on the prairie.
Hidden in a gully a half mile from a Comanche summer encampment, gut-tight, mounted, and ready to charge, Reed Benton and a company of twenty-three men watched Capt. Jonah Taylor ride down the line of troops, giving last-minute instructions as dawn stained the morning sky.
Sandy-haired and wiry, a born leader, Jonah Taylor was not only Company J Ranger captain, but Reed's best friend.
Reed gave Jonah a nod of encouragement when the man passed by. There were no formalities among the Rangers, no uniforms, no military law or precedent. The men were divided into military units and officered, but all else was loosely run. Unlettered farm boys fought beside educated men like himself. Usually outmanned, they made up for their lack of numbers with daring.
All along the line, horses as well as men shifted, anxious, all fully aware of what they were about to face. Reed wished he didn't know, wished himself anywhere else-which he knew damn well was no way to go into battle.
Back when other men were leaving Texas to fight the last few battles for the Confederacy, he had joined the Rangers to patrol the frontier. He had thought to protect the settlers living there, knew he would be chasing down renegade Comanche, but he had never anticipated rounding up women and children.
Ever since the war ended, the new government sent sporadic help from Washington, but never enough. Texans had suffered nearly thirty years of Comanche attacks, broken treaties, theft, mutilation, and death. They were all sick of it, and rightly so.
Nearly everyone in the state had lost kin or acquaintances to the hostile clans through death or capture. Most Tejanos were of a mind that only the extermination of the plains tribes would ever settle the score and bring peace to the frontier.
"You men know what to do." Jonah kept his voice low as he swung his gaze up and down the line. They were comrades in war, friends, at times pranksters, rarely family men. Rangers were known far and wide for their aggressiveness, and because of that, they rarely suffered casualties. "Three women were taken a week ago, along with two girls, eleven and twelve years old. If they're alive, they'll most likely be hidden in the lodges. Don't set any fires unless you've rousted everyone out. If we're lucky, they're here, in this camp. There don't look to be very many warriors around, just some outlying guards."
Reed drew his rifle out of its scabbard, touched one of the two pistols he wore at his waist, and then reached up and shoved his hat on tighter. He had done this countless times-ridden into hostile camps, rousted out women, children, and toothless old folk that the warriors left behind while they were out stealing horses, burning cabins, and taking captives.
He wished to God the Comanche would simply turn over the captives and go back to the reservation without a fight, but he might just as well have wished horses could fly. It was the way of the Comanche to raid and take cattle, horses, and captives and not only from white settlers, but from other tribes.
Jonah gave a whistle and as one, the Ranger Company swarmed up and out of the gully. Like a dark stain spreading across the prairie, the company raced toward the small encampment, intent on finding the captive women and evening the score.
Comanche sentries shouted and fired warning shots, alerting the inhabitants of what amounted to a clan with thirty tepees staked on the plain. Reed and the others answered back with their own fire, riding straight into the midst of the camp, firing in the air to cause as much confusion as possible so that the captives, if they were able, could break free and show themselves.
Gunfire erupted all around as Reed rode between the decorated buffalo hide lodges, instinctively aware of which Comanche were running frantically to save themselves and which others were armed and ready to defend the camp. All the while, he, like the other Rangers, was on the lookout for captives-a flash of blond or red hair, pale or sunburned skin, blue eyes, cries for help in English.
Some whites had been captive for so long they were indistinguishable from Comanche. Others had been with a clan for so long that they would run from the Rangers, clutching their half-Comanche children to their breasts.
Cookfires were scattered by charging horses. Lodges burned. The acrid smell of scorched hides hung heavy on the air. There was little real resistance from the inhabitants except for the handful of braves, but women and even children would fight to defend the camp.
Reed caught sight of a pack of youngsters, boys between eight and twelve, running swift and free as coyotes across the open plain. Despite the confusion around him, his heart involuntarily constricted. He was compelled to watch. Then suddenly, one of the Rangers behind him called out a warning and Reed whirled around in time to fire at an old man charging him with a long lance.
He had come a heartbeat away from being skewered in the back.
He had no time to react before he thought he heard a woman's cry for help in pure English, so he spun his horse around in the direction of the sound, and before he could respond, a bullet slammed into his shoulder and sent him reeling backwards. Grabbing for his saddle horn, he hung on and pulled himself upright. Then a second shot grazed his temple, and he went down.
* * *
"You're a lucky man, Benton."
Doc Harper shook his head as he wound a bit of remaining bandage into a ball and stowed it back into the worn and sagging satchel that served as a medicine bag. "Doc" was no more a doctor than any of the other Rangers, but he had a way with sick horses and wounded men and could keep them patched up until they could get some real care.
"Funny, but I don't feel lucky right now. My head hurts like hell." Truth be told, Reed found it hard to focus, but figured that was to be expected after the bullet put a new part in his hair just above his ear.
"That shoulder's bound to trouble you, too. Best you get yourself somewhere you can have it sewn up. The bullet passed clean through, so don't let anybody go digging for it again. I already did that and it ain't to be found."
Reed sat up and looked around. They were a few yards from the encampment where the Rangers had set up a holding area for the Comanche they had rounded up. The dead were laid out a few yards away. Jonah was striding toward him, his expression tight enough to cut deep grooves around his mouth.
"I'm not done for yet," Reed told him, hoping that saying it out loud would make it so. He tried to focus, forced himself to keep his head up but it throbbed like a war drum with every beat of his heart. He expected Jonah to make light of the situation, to make a joke to cheer him, but the man didn't even crack a smile.
Reed's stomach knotted. "What's wrong? Who died?"
"We didn't lose a single man. You were our worst casualty. Killed seven of their warriors, three women." Jonah looked out across the plain. "No children. We recovered two of the captive women and both girls. The third woman died on the way here. The others saw it. They're all in pretty bad shape."
Jonah didn't have to elaborate on what had happen to the captives between the time they were taken and the arrival at the camp. There wasn't a grown Texan alive who didn't know the fate of women captives.
"Sounds like . . . " Reed tried to clear his mind of the pain and fought for words. "Sounds like it went well. Why the long face?"
"We found a boy you should see. He's about the right age. And I'll be a damn pole cat if he doesn't have your eyes."
The pounding in Reed's head was instantly drowned out by the beating of his heart.
Doc reminded him that he was there by handing Reed his shirt. Jonah gave him a hand up, kept a hold of Reed's arm until the ground stopped spinning and he could stand on his own.
"Can you walk?"
"Yeah." Reed nodded, shrugging into his tattered, blood-soaked shirt. He could walk. He just didn't know if he wanted to follow Jonah. As they started toward where the Comanche were being held, he hoped with every step that Jonah was dead wrong.
The prisoners had been separated by gender, bound hand and foot, tied side by side. Older children were huddled in their own area, trying to appear fierce and sullen, failing miserably, their fear so palpable that Reed could smell it. None of them realized yet that they were not facing death or torture, the fate of anyone captured by the Comanche, but that a contingent of men would escort them to the reservation at Fort Sill in Oklahoma.
Jonah led him over to a boy who looked to be about eight years old. He sat alone, separated from the others, but like the others, he had been hobbled to keep him from running.
Reed stood over him, his breath coming rapid and shallow, suddenly lightheaded from more than his wounds. He put his hand over the makeshift bandage on his shoulder, felt warm moisture seeping through. He stepped close to the boy, so close the toes of his boots were nearly touching the child's knees, but the boy didn't look up. Jonah bent down and cupped the boy's chin, forced him to raise his head and look up.
Reed's breath left him in a whoosh. Despite the child's tear streaked, grubby face framed by dark, shoulder length hair, one glance into those Benton eyes was all it took for Reed to know what Jonah and the other men standing nearby already suspected.
After five long years, Daniel Benton had been found.
Not his Daniel, Reed reminded himself. The child clothed in a reservation issue long-tailed red shirt and a hide loincloth sat hunched over with down-cast eyes. His expression was as grim as the rest of the captured Comanche. He was not the innocent toddler he had lost, but what captivity had made of him.
Staring at Daniel brought everything back to him, all the old painful memories of his marriage to Becky, the day Daniel was born at Lone Star, his pride upon hearing that he had a son. He recalled the plans he had made for their future, his vow to be a better father than his own. His promise to his infant son that he would listen to him, to try and understand, above all to let the boy follow his heart. The filthy, half-naked child sitting in the dirt at his feet was the same little boy he had carried on his shoulders, taken everywhere with him, tucked in at night.
He had joined the Rangers driven by the need to rescue Daniel, but over time that incessant, driving need had ebbed until he believed this day would never come to pass.
So much had happened the night that Daniel was taken that Reed had a hard time trying to make sense of his feelings. The man he had been before would have wept for joy. He would have knelt and embraced his son.
Now not only pain, confusion and uncertainty tempered his reaction, but so did the knowledge that the years Daniel spent among the Comanche had done irreparable harm. Reed didn't know what in the hell to do or to say. His wounds did nothing but befuddle his dazed mind even more.
"Daniel?" The word caught in his throat and threatened to choke him. Could the boy understand anything? Did he remember his name?
Daniel refused to look up. In the midst of the company of men, aware of little but the throbbing pain in his head and shoulder, of all the grimfaced Rangers watching him, Reed reached down, impatiently jerked the rope off the boy's feet and hauled Daniel up by the arm.
Daniel immediately howled in pain and crumpled, dangling from Reed's hand. Jonah hurriedly stepped up to them.
"He's hurt, Reed." Jonah lowered his voice for Reed's ears alone. Reed closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to clear his head. Then he looked down at the boy's bare legs. One of his ankles was swelling above his beaded moccasin.
An infant's piercing mournful wail cut the hot, dry air and brought the reality of the morning's action home. Close by, fires smoldered as tepees and hides continued to burn. Smoke tainted the wide, clear blue sky.
"Take him home, Reed. Go back to Lone Star. See the boy settled in and give your shoulder a chance to heal." Jonah appeared uneasy, as if there was more he wanted to say but he held his peace.
Glancing around, Reed ignored the stares of his comrades. He spoke to the boy again but was ignored, so he wrapped one around Daniel's waist and scooped him up. Holding him against his side beneath his good arm, Reed walked passed the gathering of Rangers. He found his horse, tossed Daniel up in front of the saddle, somehow managed to keep hold of the boy and the reins and mounted up.
As soon as he hit the saddle, he suffered an intense wave of dizziness. chilled and light headed, he ached to lay down. The last thing he wanted to face in this condition was the long ride back to the ranch. Nor did he look forward to seeing his father again--but nothing short of death was going to stop him from taking Daniel back to Lone Star.