Annabelle’s a free woman. Her only desire is to become a healer like her dead father once was and to protect the people she loves. Life is sweet. That is until an outlaw by the name of Jeremiah ‘One Finger’ Polk was found unconscious on her land. Annabelle’s initial curiosity over his presence and desire to heal him from his serious wounds blooms into a forbidden encounter that will threaten the towns’ very existence and even her own.

Jeremiah Polk is a wanted man. Driven by the need for vengeance and retribution, he barely escapes the hangman’s noose and gun. When he wakes and finds a beautiful brown skin woman nursing him back to health, he thinks it’s a dream. He soon learns of the free people of color and the hidden town at the foot of the mountain that could be his sanctuary. He also finds himself drawn to the promise of redemption. But will his demons, both real and imagined, rob him of the chance? Can love survive the racial tensions between Annabelle and him post-civil war?

Miss Kitty is what they call her. However, her Christian name is Cora, and she runs the saloon and whores of Nicademus. Escaping New Orleans and the chains of a placage, she has founded a home and thriving business in Nicademus. However, the unwanted desires of the town’s sheriff, her passionate affair with her Chickasaw lover, and the new threat of the dangerous man who hunts her from her past all collide in Nicademus and threaten to destroy her.

Red Sun, Chickasaw, and the lone survivor of his tribe out of White Rock Mountain, trusts no one. He brings the orphaned Annabelle and himself to the town of Nicademus for a chance to start again. Ten years later the bitter memory of his slain people keeps him locked in the past. However, his new love affair for his ‘soiled dove’, Cora, keeps him sane. Nicademus is his home. He will risk it all to protect the town and the woman he loves.

In 1866, a town run by freed slaves, called Nicademus, is the promise of the future. The story of the town and the passionate, dangerous, and infamous exploits of its citizens are still whispered from the lips of people today. This fictionalized tale reflects some of their story. You will search for truth in it.

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Chapter One

Hot lead zipped past the outlaw’s head. The projectile landed its targeted strike. A single bullet ripped through his rawhide jacket and pierced his side. He could feel his skin singe as the bullet sliced through him while pain strangled the tortured cry of torment in his throat. The outlaw had to ride and ride hard if he was to survive Tyler Shepherd’s noose…

Jeremiah Polk’s adrenaline was the only fuel he had left to burn. He galloped at a dangerous speed as he turned and fired back from his six-shooter until the gun was spent. Maybe he hit one of them. Maybe he didn’t. He couldn’t tell with the sun disappearing behind the mountains. Dusk and shadows deepened. Death awaited him in the valley. It didn’t matter. Jeremiah rode hard and he rode fast. Once he crossed into the forested plains, the path narrowed and the last of the daylight disappeared.

I’m bleeding. I’m dying. I know it.

Thoughts mixed with fear clouded his judgment. His mind kept repeating his fate as if it should convince him to reconsider his course. He’d rather the vultures pick his bones clean than give in to the bastards hunting him.

He rode harder.

He rode faster.

The posse was close enough to be heard but far enough to be lost, which was what Jeremiah was counting on by choosing such rocky, uncharted terrain. If he crossed out of Arkansas into Oklahoma he could get lost in the gold mining towns near the foothills of the mountains.

“Yah! Yah!” Jeremiah yelled.

He kicked his heels harder, forcing the horse to pound grass and earth. He leaned in for the speed, as he wheezed through the torment splitting his side. Two lawmen and a banker were dead, but not that bastard Shepherd. He was sure their deaths would all be put on him. He was an innocent man. But who would believe him with bags of the bank’s gold strapped to his horse? Who would believe this was a ride for justice?

It’s for you, Pa, Ma, Mary, and James. This is for you. Jeremiah grunted with clenched teeth as he galloped toward freedom.

* * * * *

Along a moonlit riverbank a horse stopped to lap at the cool water rippling over the rocky shore. On his back slumped the unconscious Jeremiah Polk.

The horse paced the river then stopped under the pale moon, weary from their journey. Jeremiah slumped to the left and eventually dropped off the animal to his back. He released a groan of agony before pain and delirium drove him deeper into an unconscious state. His body had given in to dehydration and exhaustion several hours ago. What was left of him rolled into the overgrown bush to die.


Annabelle wiped her sweaty brow with the back of her hand. She gathered up the long hem of her skirt and tied it in a knot just above the knee. She waded into Buck Creek, careful of each step. The creek’s current flowed south out of the headwaters of the Kiamichi River. It provided the life force that helped the small town of Nicademus thrive. Prospectors, freed slaves, natives: many had found refuge and prosperity in Nicademus.

Lifting the pail she stepped over the smooth rocks and into the river, stopping when the water reached her knees. Her bucket submerged. Naturally her gaze lifted when the sound of rustling leaves caught her ear. The emerald green sweet grass had grown pretty tall this year. Its slender blades swayed with the wind. She caught the flight of several birds lifting from the trees, and heard the distinct buzzing chirps of beetle-bugs and crickets in the meadow. No sign of danger. Still, a girl like her had to be cautious of bears and wolves, though. Last year Matilda was attacked and mauled not too far from her land.

In order to be safe Annabelle kept her five-shot Colt Patterson revolver tucked in the front waistband of her long skirt. She had lifted the weapon off a dead ranger who while drunk fell into the creek and drowned. A dead man’s gun was said to be bad luck. Well it had proved the opposite for her. His bad luck was her good fortune.

Annabelle submerged the bucket deeper in the rippling waves and listened for the rustling again. There was only the breeze combing through the trees and tickling the waves of the creek.

It would be heaven to undress and slip under the greenish-blue waters for her morning swim, but Ms. Kitty would send for her soon. And there was another reason for caution. Nicademus was nestled between White Rock Mountain and Horsehead Mountain. The woodsy terrain out of Oklahoma led an open path straight into Arkansas. Outlaws and boomers had often stumbled on their town when lost. Ms. Kitty’s rule was that the girls never spent too much time down by the river alone, and they never bathed or swam in its waters without two or more to join. That meant trips to the river could only be done in pairs. Annabelle, however, didn’t always obey the rules.

Bringing up the pail with both hands she trekked back out of the water, leaving thoughts of frivolity behind. It was then that a spark from something shiny caught her attention. Annabelle lowered her haul to avoid any spill. Her vision narrowed on where the bushes thickened. The sun had hit something that gleamed brighter than polished silver. There in the shade she recognized the buckle of a man’s boot.

“Well I’ll be,” she said, drying her hands on the front of her dress. “What we got here?”

Curious, Annabelle removed her Colt. It could be Dillon the town drunk, taking a rest under her tree. Or it could be a boomer who had fallen asleep after stopping to visit and fill his canteen at the creek. She held the gun pointed south as she stepped closer, then stopped halfway. It was a man’s boot, spurs and all, connected to a leg, and the leg was connected to a waist. A horse neighed in the thicket just a few hundred feet beyond, and Annabelle nearly fired a shot into the ground. It startled her so.

The horse stepped out of the clearing and fixed its dark eyes on her. What a beautiful animal it was. Annabelle’s last horse had died only two months ago. She wanted this one, bad.

Her attention returned to the stranger.

Is he dead? she wondered.

She circled the man to get a better look at him. He lay on his back with his head turned. His chest rose and fell only slightly thanks to his shallow breathing. He was definitely alive. Annabelle raised her gun when she noticed around his waist he had two irons holstered on his belt.

Just what she needed, an unconscious white man in her creek. Last one she found brought the consequences of the marshals into their town. Damn near started another civil war until the doc said the fool had drank his belly full and drowned. She glanced around and wondered if there were more men.

“I oughta just leave him,” she stepped back voicing her thoughts to the wind.

The cowboy moaned. His face turned again to give her a clearer view of him. Annabelle frowned. His face was covered in hair, a scraggly dirty blond beard that hung past his neck. He had a mustache so thick it covered his lips, and unruly eyebrows and hair. She could barely see him beneath the dirt, dried blood, and sunburnt face. His hat lay over to the left of him and even from a distance she knew he stank of life in the outdoors. He looked like he’d been on his own for quite some time.

He looked dangerous.

Annabelle sucked in her bottom lip. She thought on it hard and long. Finally it was decided. A cured white man sent on his way was easier to deal with than a dead one by the river.

But how? Annabelle pondered it for another moment with her hands to her hips. She faced the grueling task of moving a man twice her weight and well over her height. The daunting task would be done all by her lonesome, and half a mile too.

Then another thought popped into her head. The horse! She glanced back over at the animal. Untying the hem of her skirt she hurried after it. Clucking her tongue as Red Sun would do, she coaxed the animal to come her way. It did. The horse was a magnificent creature, healthy, with a shiny brown spotted coat. She grabbed the reins and rubbed the bridge of his nose, giving him a kiss of thanks for being so gentle.

“Good baby … sweet baby.”

Returning to the fallen stranger she and the horse stood over him. She let go of the reins and went to her knees in front of the man. “Can you hear me, mister?”

He moaned and mumbled something unintelligible. Hesitant at first, but compelled by the way he sweated and breathed so hollowly, her heart was touched with pity. Annabelle’s first order of business was to take his guns. She did so immediately. She then reached down and let her fingers brush his face. He was burning with fever. She didn’t initially uncover the reason, but her eyes roamed over his body, hoping it wasn’t a sickness like cholera. An outbreak could kill every man, woman, and child in town. She wiped her hand on the front of her dress as fear seized her. The contagion could have leapt on her just from standing too close. She stood upright and the man moved, rolling a bit to his right. It was then that his vest parted in the front and revealed the blood stains on his side.

“Oh? You been shot?” she said curiously. She fastened his gun belt around her waist. Now she had three guns.

“Where you come from?” she asked, shaking her head in disgust.

He groaned this time in response. “Well no time for talking about it, let’s get you up.” She took hold of his wrists and pulled. The man was heavy as iron. Annabelle blew a sigh up out of her mouth with her top lip tucked in.

“Get up I say!” she pulled with all her might, digging the heels of her feet into the moist earth. “UP!” she grunted.

Again the stranger groaned, but this time he found the strength to obey. He lifted. “Your choice, I can leave you here for the buzzards or you can help me,” she wheezed. She forced him to rise and stand. He did, but fell forward on her. Annabelle was nearly brought down to the ground. She put her back into it and held him upright. Working at Ms. Kitty’s, she had had to help Jacob several nights with disposing of a drunk out of one of the girls’ rooms. Ms. Kitty’s rule was you stay you pay. And she meant it. Once a customer’s pocket was empty, so was the Blue Moon’s hospitality. So yes, she could handle standing up a man twice her size. She put his arm around her shoulder to encourage him to help and then walked him stiffly to the stallion.

“Can you hear me, mister?” she asked, and his head rolled. She thought somewhere in between he gave her a nod.

“Good e’nuff, here’s the strap. Go on … get on up there,” she said. She tried to help him mount. He didn’t have the strength. But she didn’t give up easily. Leaning him into the horse she put his foot in the stirrup, and that’s when she got a real good look at the saddle: leather bound with iron bits, it was too fancy for this vagabond lifestyle. It had to be stolen.

“Up!” She pushed at his rump. Surprisingly he went, but disappointingly fell over the saddle, hanging off the other side. Annabelle stepped back and frowned. “It’ll have ta do,” she shrugged. She found his hat and put it on his back. She grabbed the reins and led the horse to her water pail and fetched it. Shadows of circling vultures drew her eyes upward. She squinted at the dark winged creatures. “Looks like I saved you from breakfast,” she chuckled.

The man didn’t make a sound.

Annabelle walked the horse back to her cabin, through the tall sweet grass, stopping to pick a blade and chew on it. Anyone else in town would have let the buzzards pick his bones clean. But not Annabelle. She wasn’t like any of them. Her ma said her spirit had no place in this world. A woman born with her skin and strength of mind was destined for heartache, or to be broken under her husband’s boot heel.

Not so, said her pa. He named her Annabelle, which meant sweet freedom, and that’s what she was. Free. Of course she had her share of problems like the rest of them. If it weren’t for Red Sun, raiders, outlaws, or nasty men from the Maki tribe that snuck into town out of White Rock Mountain would have taken her. But she wasn’t scared. She just knew she was destined for something great.

Looking back at her stranger she wondered if the stories Red Sun told of white men like him were true. She had never met a white man, outside of the few who lived among them in town, that she trusted or liked. Never met a kind one, or even a civilized one. They were just mean as rabid dogs and full of hatred for her kind. Was he one of them? Possibly so, but that mattered none. He was hurt, and that meant she could practice on him. The thought of practicing on him made her smile.

Annabelle led the horse to the back of the cabin. Built from logs she helped Red Sun chop herself, she was quite proud of it. The girls at Blue Moon were jealous of her. She was the only one who worked there who didn’t have to live there. Ms. Kitty said she was no whore even if she had to work with them. And she and Red Sun made sure she had her dream.

“We’s here.” Annabelle announced. She carried the pail to the wash barrel and dumped fresh water in it. Typically she’d have to make at least six trips to get enough. But that wouldn’t be possible now. Her arms ached and so did her back. She was also late for her chores. For Ms. Kitty and the girls, she had dinner to prepare. There was a hen to cut and pluck, and plenty of cleaning and linen washing to do. Somehow she had to tend to her prisoner and get to work without being suspected.

“Off with ya,” she said. She walked around to the horse. She pulled on the top of his pants and he slid down before he fell over unconscious. “Oh no’s you don’t.” She put his fallen hat on her head and took hold of his collar. She forced him to sit up, barely. He dropped back like the weight he was. This time he was gone, and it felt as if his fever had spiked a degree or two. She rolled her eyes heavenward and noticed something attached to the saddle. A satchel. A bank bag. Annabelle let the man drop, never taking her eyes off of the bag. She walked over to it and untied the knot, then opened it to uncover a treasure of gold nuggets inside. It was more gold than she’d ever seen or held in her life.

Now she was in trouble.

She should have left him where he lay. The law was sure to come and if she was caught with him and the gold. She’d be strung up faster than he would.

“You runnin’ from the law and done brought your troubles to my land!” she kicked at his leg with an angry pout. Annabelle paced. She held the bag tight in her hand and paced. Chewing on her nail she stopped and looked down at him. “I oughta let Red Sun get ya, and shave yo head clean!” she grunted. Dropping next to the man on the ground she hung her head and cried. Her ma said being born free made her spoiled and thoughtless. Ms. Kitty said it made her brave. And Red Sun who didn’t speak English at all only thought to protect her from her wild ways. Well, this right here would prove them all right. She was in deep trouble now. All she wanted to do was practice on him. Play doctor. Get him on the mend and send him on his way. Now this?

She could go for Red Sun, but that would doom the stranger for sure. The only real option was to hide him until she knew what better to do. Reaching again she tried to pull him upright, to no avail.

“Come on,” she grunted. The man didn’t move. That left her with no other choice. Tying the gold to the gunslinger belt fastened around her waist, and careful of where she tucked her Colt, she grabbed his hands and began to drag him. The more she dragged the more he groaned, obviously in pain. And then he woke with a throaty cough and wheeze.

Annabelle stopped. She made little progress. “Let us try again. Heh? C’mon,” she said. She grabbed his arms and forced him to sit.

The man blinked awake, looking around disoriented.

“That’s right … it’s not far. I gots you,” Annabelle said.

He sat up. He stood upright, nearly breaking her back in the process. She walked him around the cabin to the front steps and inside. Her place consisted of two rooms. The brick fireplace for cooking and warmth, and the table Red Sun made for her with chairs were dead center. To her left was a cot for company, which were usually the kids from town who loved to come and play at her station. She had a sheet hanging on a fishing line to conceal that guest sleeping area for privacy. If Red Sun got full of the bull after a fight with Ms. Kitty and chose to stay, he had a place to lay.

So that’s where she dropped the stranger, thankful to be free of him.

There was only one other room. She even had a door to it. It’s where she slept and dressed. She always kept fresh flowers and lavender from her garden in there to make the place smell like a lady’s boudoir, like the ones the girls kept above the saloon.

Annabelle wiped her hand over her brow again and bemoaned her predicament. “You might as well be dead, you heavier than a corpse.”

She unfastened the gun belt, and with the bag of gold in hand she went into her bedroom. Dropping to her knees she pulled up the floorboard. She stuck them both underneath and put the plywood back in its place.

Dusting her hands she walked back out to tend to his horse. The first thing that needed to be done was to get rid of that saddle. She decided to bury it inside of Red Sun’s chicken hut. She covered it well and nearly got pecked to death for her troubles.

She led the horse back around to where she had kept Ms. Bee, her mare, before she had died. Tying him up, she smoothed his coat. She’d have to get rid of the animal eventually, or come up with a plausible story to claim him. After taking care of the man inside, she was going to work. Maybe she could convince Red Sun that the horse had wandered onto her land? It’s not like he never showed her how to tame a wild one. Yeah, that’s what she would say.

Her job done, she reentered the cabin to discover that her guest had tried to escape the cot. In his feverish state he fell over to the side of it. “You gonna have ta be good. Let me help and I promise I make you right as rain.” Annabelle returned the man to his back. He smelled something awful. Annabelle’s eyes and nostrils burned at the stench. Immediately she worked off his jacket, vest, and shirt, tossing them aside. She stripped him down to his britches, which would be shameful if she didn’t fancy herself a nurse. She’d seen a penis before. Red Sun often bathed in the creek, and she’d seen his body since she was a child. Plus, she took care of the kids in town, like the little boys who soiled themselves and had to be cleaned up by her hand. However, she’d never seen a penis on a white man. It wasn’t as pale as his torso. It lay flaccid against his thigh with a bit of foreskin at the tip. It was thicker than it was long. She picked it up in her hand and turned it a bit to inspect it closer.

The man groaned.

“So this here is what the fuss is all about?” she chuckled. “I knows about it. Every man in town runs to the Blue Moon to try to poke one of the girls with it. Henry tried to poke me once. But I fixed him good,” she laughed.

Red Sun’s penis was bigger, but not by much. The man groaned again when she tugged on it. Annabelle stared at him curiously for a moment then let go of his dick. She dusted her hands and stood. Her focus returned to the weeping wound on his side. It needed immediate attention. That’s why she brought him home with her in the first place, to practice. A nurse needed training, is what Doc Samuel said.

Gathering his things except for his pants––because when he woke she’d make sure they were there for his reach––she took his stuff over to the side of the cabin she reserved for washing. She’d clean them free of stench later.

“Now, I wonder how bad it is.” She dropped to her knees and began her examination. “You’s lucky. Took a plug out of ya it did. But didn’t do much more damage,” Annabelle smiled. “Don’t think infection done set in. I found you in time.”

“I want you to know, my pa was best friends with a shaman,” She began as she inspected the swelling. “Do you know what a shaman is?” She glanced up to him. The man didn’t respond, but he turned his head so she knew he was listening. “A shaman is a native medicine man. He was Chickasaw. Red Sun is Chickasaw too. My pa and ma run out of Tennessee to go north way before the war. They had to stop running and live with the Chickasaw because Ma was pregnant with me. Yep. The shaman is the reason the tribe let them stay. He say my pa was a healer. And the Chief spared him. The tribe taught my parents how to live the Chickasaw way. He taught my pa everything he knew about medicine. I gots my pa’s spirit, is what the shaman told him when I was born. So I gon’ fix you up good! Right as rain. ‘cause only I know how.”

She turned to rise and the outlaw grabbed her arm. Shocked, she drew her Colt from the front of her dress and aimed it at him. His eyes were stretched wide. “They’re all dead!” he managed through clenched teeth with spittle spraying from his mouth. The whites of his eyes were damn near the color of blood. “Ma, Pa, Mary, and James! They dead. He killed them. All!”

“Who? Who done it?” Annabelle asked, careful to keep her gun on him as she tugged to be free of his grip. He weakened and she stumbled away. She put both hands on the gun. It was hard to not be affected when a dying man spoke. And that’s what he was, up until that moment. Dead or dying. The outlaw moaned and repeated one name: Shep, Shep, he done it. And then he passed out.

At first she just stared at him before her bravery returned, and then she pushed at his arm with her gun to make sure he hadn’t gone and died on her. He was alive.

They all dead? “What does that mean?” she wondered out loud.

She tucked the Colt in the front of her dress, just to be safe. The rest of the morning she’d mend the stranger and cool his fever. And as she prepared to do so he began to ramble his tale, an interesting story of murder and a fire. Of kids named Mary and James who were too young to die. He shouted out the name Shep twice and said he’d do something bad to him when he found him. She wasn’t quite sure what kind of outlaw this one was. But she believed him. If Pa was a true healer, then she was a feeler, and she could sense it with this one. Something bad was coming.

Chapter Two

Cora glanced up from her counting. She’d gotten a late start Sunday morning after dealing with a rowdy bunch of prospectors before dawn. Yawning, she blinked and focused her weary eyes on the scattered bills and gold coins. “Jessiemae?”

“Yes, Ms. Kitty?” Jessiemae, her most trusted girl on the payroll, a dark skinned beauty with short, thickly coiled hair, full lips, and slanted eyes, answered her. Ms. Kitty was the name Cora had adapted as the madam of the Blue Moon Saloon.

“Where’s Annabelle?” Cora asked.

“She sent word though Jacob early, Ms. Kitty. She said she had to do some work at home. She’d be in late, if’fin at all,” Jessiemae said. “She asked me to go to Doc Samuel to get her some things she needed. That the Doc would be good on it. I’m thinking she not feeling well.”

Cora shook her head. The girl was spoiled. It was Cora and Red Sun that made her so—especially after they bankrolled and built Annabelle her own house. Annabelle was seventeen and should be married to some respectable rancher or banker, not singing nightly in her saloon for coins, or following Doc Samuel around town on his visits with her silly head ideas of becoming a nurse. “If Annabelle isn’t here by noon send someone to check on her,” Cora sighed.

She counted a hundred and fifty. That was the take for the week. It was a damn good week. She put the bounty in her lockbox and turned the key. She dropped the key in between her breasts where she made sure the employees knew she kept it.

“Red Sun’s here,” Jessiemae said. The young woman peeked over at Cora for her reaction. Everyone had heard the fight Cora had had with Red Sun a few days earlier. Her assistant took the lockbox of money and put it in the secured place. Cora nodded her head in thanks for the information. She pushed up from behind her desk and walked out of her second floor office. It was necessary to keep two separate offices to deter theft before she could reach for a gun. She stopped at the balcony and stared down into the saloon. Joshua and Jacob, twins who were ranchers as well as helpers for her business, were the only men she ever put on payroll. Joshua wiped down the bar, while Jacob, her muscle, put the men who lingered out the door. Cora saw Red Sun sitting alone. His back was to her but his coal black silky mane lay flat to his head and flowed past his square shoulders. He couldn’t be missed. And the fact that he didn’t stop at Annabelle’s to get him a proper meal meant he wanted to talk.

Last night was the fourth night in a row he hadn’t come to Cora’s bed. She was lonely for him. The argument was stupid. But a man like Red Sun never understood the defiant nature of a woman like her. Cora would not be told what to do by any man. Ever. Those days were over. No matter how much she loved him she couldn’t break that one vow. Still, Red Sun made her want to try.

Their relationship was all emotion and few words. Red Sun refused to learn the English language. She had to be taught by Annabelle how to communicate with the intimidating Indian in Chickasaw when they both showed up in town years ago in need of shelter. Cora was glad for it. The words he’d say in the heat of passion were burned into her soul. He was the most sensual, giving lover she’d ever known. And sadly Cora had known quite a few.

Jessiemae joined her. They stood side by side staring down at the saloon, at Red Sun. “Are the girls’ rooms emptied?”

“Yes, Ms. Kitty. Jacob just sent the last man on his way,” Jessiemae replied.

Cora and Red Sun may not be on the best of terms, but she sure could use him tonight. She’d heard from the sheriff’s deputy that a few Buffalo Soldiers were riding through town on their way to Tulsa. Someone important from the Senate was meeting with the governor there. The girls would need to be at their best, and the locals would be turned away.

“Tell Red Sun to come see me.” She said the words in Chickasaw so Jessiemae could relay the message.

She turned and headed for her room. Cora closed the door when she entered. She sucked in her diaphragm and proceeded to undress. Her room was the only one with a claw foot limestone tub, the most extravagant thing she owned. Cleanliness was one of the strict customs that Red Sun lived by. In the ways of the Chickasaw, the women were expected to wash daily. To not wash your body and hair was seen as blasphemous. It was one of the customs that Cora quickly learned to adopt for Red Sun. The other girls bathed in one of the outside stalls to the back of the saloon with Jessiemae filling the wash bucket. She tried to enforce the custom of cleanliness with them as well.

Thankfully her bath had been drawn. Jessiemae had heated water and poured it into the tub. Cora unfastened her black waist corset that was tight around her abdomen and dropped her gun belt on the chair. She shed her blue satin dress last. Undressed, she stepped into the now tepid water and sunk down into bliss.

* * * * *

Red Sun looked up from his meal of eggs and potatoes. Jessiemae cackled at him a few words that meant nothing. His head turned and his gaze lifted to the upper level of the saloon. Cora had sent for him.

A man was nothing without his pride. Cora was the only woman he’d constantly handed his over to. It was hard and frustrating. And this evening, for the sake of peace, he’d have to do it again. Red Sun nodded to Jessiemae so she could shut up and continued to eat. He would not be rushed through his meal for this infuriating woman, though admittedly he chewed and swallowed faster.

The first time he discovered the town of Nicademus he watched it from the top of White Rock Mountain in a state of disbelief. Never had he seen blacks, natives, Chinese, and even a few whites live in harmony under the white man’s law undisturbed by raiders or bandits. He was cautious of trusting in the allure. He soon learned that Nicademus had the perfect cover of the black forest near Buck Creek, and was deep in the foothills of the mountains. Many homesteaders passed the valley in fear of bears, or wolves that frequently prowled this region. That left the land unsullied. Its obscurity was its security. And that’s why he decided Nicademus would be the perfect place to raise his wounded sparrow Annabelle.

First day in town he met Cora, a beautiful soiled dove with large brown eyes under extended dark lashes. She had buttery brown skin, hair that was dark as raven feathers and so curly it bounced on her shoulders when she walked. When she pinned it from her face with sparkling barrettes, the hair curled like a baby’s around the temple and her ears. She said she was gens de couleur out of a place called the French Quarter. A year after knowing her she shared her sad story of being born a slave and sold into placage at the age of ten by her white French father away from her mother’s arms.

She was his Soiled Dove, a name given to her by him and only evoked in private. Cora was also the governess of the whores who took shelter at her establishment and worked for her. Underneath the sex kitten exterior was the pure innocence of a woman with a golden heart. He loved her deeply, and when she became his she never took another man to bed. Never.

Red Sun stood. He kicked back the chair and stalked toward the stairs. His height and temperament made very few gunslingers brave enough to look him in the eye. And that suited him fine. He didn’t like cowboys, black or white. Hell, he didn’t like people in general. Didn’t deal well with friendships. Cora and Annabelle were the only living beings left in the world that he cared for and would kill for.

At her door he paused. He had no idea what mood Cora would be in. He’d been out in the mountains for the past four days trapping and killing bears and wild turkey. Their parting was so sour he knew the bitter aftertaste would linger on her sharp tongue. But again his body and heart ached to be soothed by her. Recently he’d had a dream, and his dreams were always omens. Something bad was coming. And in his spirit he knew this time it was coming for her.

“Come in,” he heard her call out in his native language from behind the door. It must have been his heavy footfalls that clued her to his presence. He turned the knob and pushed it open. Cora dipped under the sudsy water of her bath and came back up. She wiped at her eyes with her fingers. Her natural curls were now wavy and flat to her forehead. The room smelled like her perfumed bath.

“Welcome home,” she said in Chickasaw.

Red Sun closed the door with a hard slam. Cora stood. She faced him. Her bodily perfection continued to amaze him. There were few scars from her life of hardship. Her breasts had a swollen prideful rise, and though her skin was on the lighter shade of brown, her dark nipples and the wavy black hairs that covered her pussy were the compelling reminder of her exotic ethnicity. He wished her womb could swell with his child, and he could drape her in fine dresses like the ones the ladies often whispered about. But for all the years of their trying, her womb remained barren. He knew she wanted motherhood. He knew her heart wanted more than to be some whore-guardian to these lost women.

She blinked those dark lashes at him and pointed to her robe resting on the back of a chair. He walked over and picked it up. Cora stepped out of the tub to the floor, pooling water at her feet. He put the robe around her shoulders and she slipped her arms through the sleeves. “Four days. No word from you. Do you know how that made me feel?” she turned her head and looked back at him. “Do you even care?”

He processed the words. Did he know? Did he care? How could she ever ask that of him? He only grunted a response. He knew English. He spoke it in bites when forced to, but vowed never to let go of the language of his people. Why the brown and yellow people of Nicademus insisted on speaking the white man’s language was beyond him. Had they no pride?

Cora turned and wrapped her arms around his waist. The act of submissive contrition shocked him.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. She squeezed him. “Sometimes I don’t know the words that I’ve said until they are off my lips. I should have never argued with you. Okay? I missed you.”

He stroked the back of her head. His woman did not easily give others forgiveness. Soiled Dove was a survivor. Her iron will made her unyielding and invincible to her enemies. It made her a worthy conquest to the men who lusted for her. He didn’t need to break her. He just wanted to love her, his way.

Red Sun lifted her chin. Cora’s wet hair fell past her shoulders and dripped heavy drops of water to the floor. Her lips were the softest he’d ever known on a woman. And when he kissed her, all the time spent apart fell away like a distant memory. His tongue swept deep, hers teased in response. Her perfumed hair and body was a gift from nature and God. He forced the robe, now damp and clinging to her curves, off her. He wanted no barrier between them. Cora reached around his neck and pushed up against him, and he lifted her in his arms, refusing to release her from their kiss. He carried her only a few feet to the bed, and only because it was how it should be done.