Image by Cayetano Gil

Warrior's Heart

by Colleen Hall

{Northeastern Colorado Territory | Spring, 1876}

Chapter 1

The rider halted his mount on the bluff’s crest and remained poised for a moment silhouetted against the blue Colorado sky. Della Hunter rose to her feet and shaded her eyes with her hand, frowning a little. Something familiar about the man niggled at her memory.

 

The spring bunch grass rustled in the restless wind, making Della’s split riding skirt play about her boot tops. The blue silk bandana tied about her neck flapped, and the chocolate-colored curls that had loosened from her French braid danced about her face. The breeze teased her nostrils with the scents of ripening earth and wildflowers. She ignored the distractions while she studied the horseman atop the ridge.

 

The High Plain’s greening swells spread out on both sides of the rider, creating a stage with the sky as a backdrop. He and his mount appeared to be carved from ebony, motionless except for the horse’s billowing tail. Though some distance separated them, the man’s stare touched her. An uneasy frisson shivered down Della’s spine.

 

The rider and his piebald mount eased off the rim, angling down the slope. They reached the bottom of the bluff and approached her at an easy walk.

 

Without seeming to hurry, Della left the grave where she’d been kneeling and paced to the cemetery gate. The spiked iron barrier squealed when she pushed it open. She stepped toward her gray grulla gelding, ground-hitched just outside the fence. While the horseman drew near, she stood at the gelding’s shoulder, within easy reach of her Winchester.

 

The rider halted mere yards from her. Recognition punched Della in the chest. She hadn’t seen this man in almost seven years, yet she knew him. Wild Wind. Shane’s Cheyenne half brother sat his mount almost within touching distance.

 

For silent moments Wild Wind stared down at her. An eagle feather fluttered from a lock of his long, dark hair. A fringed buckskin shirt and leather leggings molded his muscular frame. A rifle slung over his shoulder hung from a leather strap.

 

The years they’d spent apart hadn’t tempered his arrogance. He sat tall and erect upon his mount, head unbowed, his lean features expressionless.  At last he spoke. “Lona.”

 

Hearing him utter the name he’d given her years ago took her back to the weeks she’d spent in his Cheyenne village. Weeks when she’d thought she would marry him, if Shane didn’t rescue her first. Remembering the more recent tales she’d heard of Wild Wind and his Dog Soldiers fighting the army in bloody raids during the last six years reminded her this man had a reputation as a fearsome warrior. “Wild Wind. Do you come in peace?”

 

He nodded. “I have laid down my rifle and no longer wage war against the pony soldiers, or your people.”

 

“We have no cause to fear you?”

 

His unblinking regard held her gaze. “I did not raise my hand against your uncle the general or his people in all my years of fighting. I will not do so now.”

 

“That is good. And how is Yellow Wolf?”

 

“My father lives on the Cheyenne reservation on the Tongue River.”

 

Della nodded. She’d heard that Congress had designated a large portion of land in southern Montana to be a Cheyenne reservation. “Is he well?”

 

“He is well, but we have no buffalo to hunt. There is little food, and there is sickness among our people.”

 

Della reached out to him, then dropped her hand to her side. “I’m sorry, Wild Wind. Truly, I’m sorry. Uncle Clint is raising beef cattle to sell to the army for your people, so that should help.”

 

“The cattle do not always reach the reservation.”

 

She suspected corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs might have something to do with the cattle not reaching the reservation. “I’ll have Uncle Clint look into it. He has contacts with the army.”

 

Wild Wind shifted on his mount. “Your uncle the general is an honest man. I believe he may help us.” His glance swept the prairie. “And where is my brother, Little Wolf?”

His words pierced Della’s heart, reminding her of why she’d come to the cemetery.

 

Gathering her composure, she closed her eyes and breathed through her nose. Tears pricked behind her lids, but she willed them away. She opened her eyes and motioned toward the new grave inside the railed iron fence. “Little Wolf. . . Shane. . . your brother is there.”

 

Wild Wind’s nostrils flared, though he gave no other sign the news touched him. “What made my brother travel the Road of the Departed?”

 

“A terrible blizzard hit us in late February. Shane and some of the men rode out to bring the horses in off the range. The snow cut them off before they could get home. His mustang brought him back, but it was too late. He froze to death.”

 

Wild Wind seemed to contemplate the news for several moments before he motioned toward Shane’s grulla gelding. “You ride his mustang.”

 

“Somehow, riding his horse makes me feel closer to him.” Della stroked the grulla’s neck. Silence fell between them while they eyed each other. “And what of you?”

“I have been on the reservation for many moons.” He paused. “I married Little Fawn.”

 

Della tried to smile at him. “I’m glad you found someone to love.”

 

Wild Wind lifted his head and stared down his straight nose at her, all male arrogance. “I married Little Fawn because her brothers died fighting the pony soldiers, and she had no one to care for her. She did not bring the sunshine to my heart.”

 

Della covered her mouth with one hand, unsure of what to say. She couldn’t look away from Wild Wind’s savage face. Lowering her hand, she said, “Did you leave her in your village?”

He shook his head. “Little Fawn and our babe died from the illness that takes many of my people on the reservation.”

 

Della caught her breath and stepped closer. “I’m so sorry. I know Little Fawn loved you very much.”

 

With fluid grace Wild Wind slipped from his mount and strode toward Della, halting before her. Though his chiseled features remained a stony mask, his blue eyes, a legacy from his blond-haired mother, blazed down at her. “A cold wind has blown through my heart since you left. My heart is frozen, as the ice in winter.”

 

Della quailed at his fierceness. Though she’d seen his gentle side, in many ways he remained wild and untamed. His primal spirit, obviously untempered by the intervening years, reached out to her. She wanted to step away, to put more distance between them, but to do so would be to admit he intimidated her. Instead, she jutted her chin and met his relentless stare. “A marriage between us wasn’t meant to be.”

 

“You married Little Wolf. The news came to me on the wind. To think of you married to my brother made my heart howl like the wolf grieving for its dead mate.”

 

“I loved him very much. I love him still.”

 

“Was there sunshine in your lodge? Did Little Wolf make your heart soar as the eagle?”

 

Della squeezed her eyes closed, shutting out the warrior standing before her. Her throat clenched, and she had to swallow before she could speak. She opened her eyes. “Yes, Shane and I were very happy.”

 

Wild Wind moved closer, crowding her. The fringe on his buckskin tunic fluttered against her short sheepskin jacket. Though his nearness made her palms sweat, Della refused to back away. Their stares locked, while his essence nearly overwhelmed her. She couldn’t breathe.

 

“Is there no room in your heart for me?”