Otakatay is hired to kill the witkowin-crazy women. A deadly bounty hunter, he has found his last victim in timid healer Nora Rushton. Marked as a witch, Nora uses her gift to heal those in need, and the bounty hunter is one of them. Will the desire to complete his promise drive him to kill her, or will the kindness he sees in her blue eyes push him to be the man he once was?
Nora and Otakatay must fight for their freedom in a time when race and discrimination are a threat and innocence holds no ground.BUY THE BOOK *** BUY THE eBOOK
Colorado Mountains, 1880
The blade slicing his throat made no sound, but the dead body hitting the ground did. With no time to stop, he hurried through the dark tunnel until he reached the ladder leading out of the shaft.
He’d been two hundred feet below ground for ten days, with no food and little water. Weak and woozy, he stared up the ladder. He’d have to climb it and it wasn’t going to be easy. He wiped the bloody blade on his torn pants and placed it between his teeth. Scraped knuckles and unwashed hands gripped the wooden rung.
The earth swayed. He closed his eyes and forced the spinning in his head to cease. One thin bronzed leg lifted and came down wobbly. He waited until his leg stopped shaking before he climbed another rung. Each step caused pain, but was paired with determination. He made it to the top faster than he’d thought he would. The sky was black and the air was cool, but fresh. Thank goodness it was fresh.
He took two long breaths before he emerged from the hole. The smell from below ground still lingered in his nostrils; unwashed bodies, feces and mangy rats. His stomach pitched. He tugged at the rope around his hands. There had been no time to chew the thick bands around his wrists when he’d planned his escape. It was better to run than crawl, and he chewed through the strips that bound his feet instead. There would be time to free his wrists later.
He pressed his body against the mountain and inched toward the shack. He frowned. A guard stood at the entrance to where they were. The blade from the knife pinched his lip, cutting the thin skin and he tasted blood. He needed to get in there. He needed to say goodbye. He needed to make a promise.
The tower bell rang mercilessly. There was no time left. He pushed away from the rocky wall, dropped the knife from his mouth into his bound hands, aimed and threw it. The dagger dug into the man’s chest. He ran over, pulled the blade from the guard and quickly slid it across his throat. The guard bled out in seconds.
He tapped the barred window on the north side of the dilapidated shack. The time seemed to stretch. He glanced at the large house not fifty yards from where he stood. He would come back, and he would kill the bastard inside.
He tapped again, harder this time, and heard the weak steps of those like him shuffling from inside. The window slid open, and a small hand slipped out.
“Toksha ake—I shall see you again,” he whispered in Lakota.
The hand squeezed his once, twice and on the third time held tight before it let go and disappeared inside the room.
A tear slipped from his dark eyes, and his hand, still on the window sill, balled into a fist. He swallowed past the sob and felt the burn in his throat. His chest ached for what he was leaving behind. He would survive, and he would return.
Men shouted to his right, and he crouched down low. He took one last look around and fled into the cover of the forest.
1888, Willow Creek, Colorado
Nora Rushton scanned the hillside before glancing back at the woman on the ground. She could be dead, or worse yet, someone from town. She flexed her hands. The woman’s blue skirt ruffled in the wind, and a tattered brown Stetson sat beside her head. Nora assessed the rest of her attire. A faded yellow blouse stained from the grass and dirt, leather gloves and a red bandana tied loosely around her neck. She resembled a ranch hand in a skirt.
There was no one else around, and the woman needed her help. She chewed on her lip, and her fingers twitched. I have to help her. She sucked in a deep breath, held it, and walked the remaining few feet that stood between her and the injured woman.
The woman’s horse picked up Nora’s scent, trotted over and pushed his nose into her chest.
“It’s okay, boy,” she said, smoothing back the red-brown mane. “Why don’t you let me have a look at your owner?”
She knelt down beside the woman and realized she was old enough to be her grandmother. Gray hair with subtle blonde streaks lay messed and pulled from the bun she was wearing. Why was she on a horse in the middle of the valley without a chaperone?
She licked her finger and placed it under the woman’s nose. A cool sensation skittered across her wet finger, and she sighed.
The woman’s left leg bent inward and laid uncomfortably to the side. She lifted the skirt for a closer look. Her stomach rolled, and bile crawled up the back of her throat. The thigh bone protruded, stretching the skin bright white, but didn’t break through. Nora’s hands grew warm, the sensation she felt so many times before.
The woman moaned and reached for her leg.
“No, please don’t touch your leg. It’s broken.” She held the woman’s hand.
Ice blue eyes stared back at her, showing pain mingled with relief.
“My name is Nora,” she said with a smile. “I am going to get help.”
The wrinkled hand squeezed hers, and the woman shook her head. “No, child, my heart can’t take the pain much longer.” Creased lips pressed together as she closed her eyes and took two deep breaths. “Please, just sit here with me.” Her voice was husky and weak.
She scanned the rolling hills for any sign of help, but there was no one. She studied the woman again. Her skin had a blue tinge to it, and her breathing became forced. I promised Pa. But how was she supposed to walk away from this woman who so desperately needed her help? She took another look around. Green grass waved in the wind. Please, someone, anyone come over the hill.
White daisies mingled within the grass, and had the woman not been injured, she would’ve plucked a few for her hair. She waited a few minutes longer. No one came. Her hands started their restless shaking. She clasped them together, trying to stop the tremors. It would only take a few minutes. I can help her. No one would see. She stared at the old woman, except her. If she helped her, would she tell everyone about Nora’s secret? Would she ask any questions? There were always questions.
Nora’s resolve was weakening. She ran her hot hands along the woman’s body to see if anything else was broken. Only the leg, thank goodness. Lifting the skirt once again, she laid her warm palms gently on the broken thigh bone. Her hands, bright red, itched with anticipation. The leg seemed worse without the cover of the skirt. One move and the bone would surely break through the skin. She inhaled groaning at the same time as she placed her hands on either side of the limb. In one swift movement, she squeezed the bone together.
The woman shot up from the grass yelling out in agony.
Nora squeezed harder until she felt the bone shift back into place. Jolts of pain raced up and down her arms as the woman’s leg began to heal. Nora’s own thigh burned and ached, as her bones and flesh cried out in distress. She held on until the pain seeped from her own body into nothingness, vanishing as if it were never there.
She removed her hands, now shaking and cold from the woman’s healed limb, unaware of the blue eyes staring up at her. Her stomach lurched, like she knew it would—like it always did afterward. She rose on trembling legs and walked as far away as she could before vomiting onto the bright green grass. Not once, but twice. She waited until her strength returned before she stood and let the wind cool her heated cheeks. The bitter taste stayed in her mouth. If the woman hadn’t been there she’d have spit the lingering bile onto the grass. She needed water and searched the area for a stream.
Her mouth felt full of cotton, and she smacked her tongue off of her dry lips. She was desperate for some water. Had she not wandered so far from the forest to set the baby hawk free, she’d know where she was now and which direction would take her home. She gasped. She’d lost track of time and needed to get home before Pa did. Jack Rushton had a temper and she didn’t want to witness it tonight.
“Are you an angel?”
She turned to face the woman and grinned. “No, Ma’am. I am not an angel, although I like to think God gave me this gift.”
The woman pulled her skirt down, recovered from her shock and said in a rough voice, “Well if you ain’t no angel, than what in hell are ya?”
Taken aback at the woman’s gruffness, she knelt down beside her. Here we go, either she understands or she runs away delusional and screaming. “I...I am a healer.” She waited.
The woman said nothing instead she narrowed her eyes and stared. “A witch?”
“No, not a witch. I need you to promise you won’t tell anyone what happened here today.” Her stomach in knots, she waited for the old woman’s reply.
“You think I’m some kind of fool?” She stood and stretched her leg. She stared at the healed limb before she hopped on it a few times. “People already think I’m crazy. Why would I add more crap to their already heaping pile of shit?”
Oh my. The woman’s vocabulary was nothing short of colorful, and she liked it.
She smiled and stuck out her hand. “I’m Nora Rushton. It’s nice to meet you.”
The woman stared at her for a few seconds before her thin mouth turned up and she smiled. “Jess Chandler.” She gripped Nora’s hand with such force she had to refrain from yelling out in pain. “Thanks for your help, girly.”
“I don’t think we’ve ever met. Do you live in Willow Creek?”
“I own a farm west of here.”
“How come I’ve never seen you?” I never see anyone, Pa’s rules.
The wind picked up whipping Jess’s hat through the air. “Max,” she called over her shoulder, “fetch my hat.”
The horse’s ears spiked and he trotted off toward the hat. She watched in awe as the animal retrieved the Stetson with his mouth and brought it back to his master.
“I’ve never seen such a thing,” Nora giggled and patted Max’s rump.
Jess took the hat and slapped it on top of her head.
“Yup, ol’Max here, he’s pretty damn smart.”
“I’d say he is.” She remembered the companionship she’d enjoyed with the baby hawk she’d rescued a few weeks ago. She’d miss the little guy. His feedings had kept her busy during the long boring days at home. “Miss Jess, I’m sorry to be short, but I have to head on home.”
“Hell, girly, I can take you.” She climbed up onto Max and wound the reins around her gloved hands. “Hop on. He’s strong enough for two.”
“Are you sure?”
“It’s the least I can do.”
She clasped Jess’s hand and pulled herself up behind her. “Thank you, Jess, for keeping my secret.” Placing her arms around the woman’s waist, she gave her a light squeeze.
“Darlin,” Jess patted Nora’s hand, “you can rest assured I will take this secret to my grave.” She whistled, and Max started toward town.
Otakatay sat tall on his horse as he gazed at the lush green valley below. The town of Willow Creek was nestled at the edge of the green hills. He’d been gone four round moons, traveling to Wyoming and back. The rough terrain of the Rocky Mountains had almost killed him and his horse. The steep cliffs and forests were untouched by man.
On the first day in the Rockies, he’d come up against a mountain lion, a grizzly and bush thick enough to strangle him. He used his knife to carve into the dense brush, and his shotgun to defend himself. When he could, he stuck to the deer trails, and in the evening built large fires to keep the animals at bay.
He glanced behind him at the brown sack tied to his saddle. Inside, there were three. This time he’d ask for more money. His bronzed jaw flexed. He would demand it.
The sky was bright blue with smudges of gray smoke wafting upward from the homes and businesses. The weather would warm as the day progressed and the sun rose higher into the sky. His eyes wandered past the hills to the mountains behind them, and his insides burned.
He clicked his tongue, and his mustang sauntered down the hill. Wakina was agile and strong. Otakatay knew he could count on him always. Over the years Wakina had kept pace with his schedule and relentless hunting. The emerald stocks swayed and danced before him as he rode through. The grass brushed the bottoms of his moccasins, and he dunked his hand into the velvety green weed. He’d make camp in the forest outside of the mining town.
Wakina shook his head and whinnied. Otakatay brushed his hand along the length of his silver mane.
“Soon my friend, soon,” he whispered.
The animal wanted to run down into the valley, but resigned himself to the lethargic pace his master ordered. Wakina tossed his head. Otakatay slapped Wakina’s sides with the loose ends of the reins, and the horse took off down the hill clearing a path through the grass.
The rolling blanket of emerald parted as Wakina’s long legs cantered toward the forest. Otakatay’s shoulder-length black hair whipped his face and tickled his neck as his heart pounded lively inside his chest. It was rare that he felt so alive. His days consisted of planning and plotting until he knew every detail by heart. The eagle feather tied to his hair lifted in the wind and soared high above his head. For a moment he allowed himself to close his eyes and enjoy the smells of wildflowers and wood smoke. The sun kissed his cheeks and he tried to hold onto the moment, savoring the last bit of calm before rotten flesh and wet fur filled his nostrils.
His eyes sprung open. He pulled on the reins, and rubbed his nose to rid the smell, to push out the visions that saturated his mind. The scent clung to him burrowing deep into his soul and he mentally fought to purge it from his consciousness. He shook his head and concentrated on the fields, trying to push the memories away. He didn’t want to do this, not now. He didn’t want to see, feel, smell, or taste the memory again.
The rhythmic clanking echoed inside his head, and he squeezed his eyes closed. Sweat trickled down his temples. He clenched every muscle in his body. His hands skimmed the jagged walls of the damp tunnel. He stumbled and fell onto the rough walls, burning his torn flesh. He moaned. Every bit of him ached with such pain, he was sure he’d die. His thin body shook with fever. He reeked of blood, sweat and fear.
With each step he took, he struggled to stay upright and almost collapsed onto the ground. The agony of his wounds blinded him, and he didn’t know if it was a combination of the sweat dripping into his eyes, or if he was crying from the intense pain. His back burned and pulsed with powerful beats, the skin became tight around his ribs as the flesh swelled.
He tripped on a large rock and fell to the ground. The skin on his knees tore open, but he didn’t care. Nothing could ease the screaming in his back. Nothing could take away the hell he lived every day. He laid his head against the dirt covered floor. Dust stuck to his cheeks and lips while he prayed for Wakan Tanka to end his life.