Excerpt from Hearts at War

Tókwar scolded himself for not having taken the time to give Athena a proper goodbye. He should’ve hugged her instead of making a smartass comment and running off like a tough warrior. Women wanted their men to be gentle. Not that he was hers or he owed her anything, but they had an undeniable bond and he’d vowed to care for her—not hurt her.

At least, he treasured the scent of female he’d memorized during her shooting lesson. And the softness of her curly hair, the warmth of her ripe, feminine body that fit him and felt good to hold. Her voice. Her sharp thinking. Her quick smile, which always brightened his mood.

How had her night been? He’d brought her to the safest place he knew of. Hopefully, she’d coped well with baby Kwi-Ats and not been too afraid of staying alone. It tore him apart that he couldn’t be there to make sure they were okay, but Hevo’s efforts to save her life had earned him an attempt to save his.

Tókwar’s chest tightened. He’d told her the truth, that he might not come back. He could be shot, or he could be taken prisoner. She was at risk, too. Wildlife could attack her and the baby, the river might suddenly flood the narrow canyon and drown them, or, if he stretched his imagination, slave traders could kidnap and sell her to a plantation owner like her father.

While his thoughts went wild in the early morning, the Yamparika Ute camp down the hill from his hiding place came to life. He’d spent the night holding watch from the top of the red stone ridge that cut through the terrain between the village and the canyon. A yellow ball of fire rose on the horizon behind the tepees, spreading vivid colors into the sky.

What to do to free Hevo? He didn’t know yet, could only wait for an opportunity to show up. It was impossible to do anything as long as the Utes held him captive. Even sneaking into the camp at night was too risky. He prayed the council had decided to trade Hevo with the white men, because it was a much more lucrative option than to kill him for nothing.

He checked the two rifles and two revolvers that lay at his sides. He’d loaded them in the evening, but one was never too sure. Things could happen very quickly, and he didn’t need a stupid, last-second fumbling with firearms.

He wasn’t a warrior but a hunter. The notion of killing another person revolted him, and he’d thankfully never been in a situation where he’d had to, but this morning, he was ready to kill. The white men had given his wife and unborn son no mercy, and although he’d decided not to seek revenge, he wouldn’t hesitate to take a life to save Hevo’s.

His sleepless night had been long, cold, and uncomfortable as he’d laid on his stomach watching flickering lights in the dark village—fires that the white men and Ute guards had lit to stay warm and deter animals.

The unmistakable smell of roasted coffee beans drifted from the camp, a painful reminder he’d only had a few sips of water from his canteen since he left the canyon. But he stifled his hunger and thirst and focused on the scene playing below, a half mile away. Utes moved about, small as ants, doing their morning routines.

Finally: The traders killed the fire, saddled their horses, and loaded the pack mules. The rising sun blinded him, so he covered his eyes with a hand and studied the men closer. They waved to the Utes who had come to see their departure and trotted out of the camp. One of them carried Hevo’s girlfriend behind him. So, he’d been right to assume the Utes wouldn’t take her back.

But where was Hevo?

There—limping after the horses, pulled by a rope! With a broken leg, he wouldn’t last.

Tókwar groaned, cold dread rushing through him. The white men must have traded him from the Utes, like he’d thought, and they would bring him back east where the white military would hang him.

He had to act. Now.

His experience as a hunter helped keep calm and focus. The first rifle shot hit the man who pulled Hevo. He fell off the horse. Tókwar grabbed the second rifle and shot another man, exploding his head. Before he could reload, the remaining two yelled and took off with the pack mules in tow. He didn’t dare to accidentally hurt the girl, so he let them scurry across the prairie like scared rabbits.

The horse Hevo was tied to panicked and galloped away, too, dragging him behind.

Tókwar ground his teeth as he pushed a cartridge into the rifle breech and closed the bolt. To save his friend, he had to shoot the horse. No other option. He fired, and the big animal fell to the ground with a whinny, four hooves in the air, the impact swirling up dust.

Shouting came from the Ute camp. People ran and waved. In a few moments, the site where Hevo lay immobile would be crowded.

Tókwar stood quickly despite his frozen limbs. Leaving one rifle behind, he ran to the pony, who had grazed behind him the whole time, and jumped up. A strong squeeze of his legs propelled the mount forward and down the hill at full speed. With the rifle plus two revolvers in his belt, he had three immediate shots.

He joined Hevo within seconds and covered him, rifle pointed to the Ute camp. The braves wouldn’t launch anything as long as he aimed at them. He had already killed two men.

Hevo was conscious but stunned, eyes wide and skin pale. Blood ran from a long gash in his right hip and pooled on the ground. When the horse dragged him on the rough terrain, he must have rolled onto his good side to avoid damaging the broken leg.

Tókwar secured the rifle beneath his thigh so he could reach down with his knife and cut the rope tying Hevo’s wrists. Once Hevo was free, he slid the blade back into his belt and reached out again. “Hurry, brother. Catch my hand.”

With a grimace, Hevo let him pull him up into a standing position.

The shouts sounded closer. No time.

Holding the pony’s mane for balance, Tókwar slid his free arm under Hevo’s shoulders and around his back before summoning his last strength to lift his heavy friend up on the pony, behind him. Hevo let out a groan of pain and slumped against his back.

Breathless, Tókwar swirled to grab the rifle and pointed it at the group of angry looking braves who had gathered at the edge of the cottonwood grove.

Stay put.

Holding them in check, he made the pony spin and rode over to the last horse standing, the one whose owner lay contorted on the ground with half his head missing.

By killing the two traders, he had declared war on the Pale Faces. Why not be a thief too, while he was at it. He leaned over to catch the reins.

Copyright @ 2022 Lea Bronsen

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