An unshakeable bond grew between Sage and Wanapaya while he convalesced. For a week, the brave floundered in a drug-induced stupor. The first time he ventured onto the porch, his legs threatened to buckle and a bout of dizziness claimed him, reactions Sage assured him were normal after lying abed for seven days.
Grandmother deemed him fit enough to explore his surroundings the following week, his short jaunts accompanied by a walking stick bequeathed to him by Peter Pa. Sage admired his determination to return to his prior state of good health. Wanapaya walked the property throughout the day, bribed back onto the porch chair when the aromatic scents of food beckoned him.
On the third week, Sage entered her room and resisted the urge to touch him. His mouth slack in slumber, his dark lashes kissing his high cheekbones caused her heart to skip a beat. A stab of grief tore through her. Soon he'd vanish from her midst as fast as he'd appeared. With a prolonged sigh, she slid into the chair beside the bed, and closed her eyes, intent on waiting until he awakened.
Startled when someone ran a soft finger down her cheek, she opened her eyes and looked into his handsome face. "I hope you've come to drag me from this sickbed."
She loved his deep, rich voice, and his touch. "I have a surprise for you, if you're well enough to journey into the woods."
"Like the fox catching the scent of a hare, I am an impatient man. Tell me about this journey."
When his gaze fell across her like a caress, she melted like wax. "I'll show you an enchanted glen few on earth have seen."
Rising from the bed with a pained grimace, he bit off a curse and reached for his walking stick against the wall.
"Your leg still pains." Sage rose from the chair. "Perhaps we should wait."
He spun around, the smile bracketing his mouth breathtaking. "I will see this enchanted glen." He limped toward her and lifted her chin with a gentle finger. "Today."
Sunlight broke through the clouds and captured the faces of the giant sunflowers in a flare of splendor. Sage couldn't have commanded a more beautiful day, and for some reason it seemed important today be perfect.
Wanapaya arched his neck back and looked skyward. "I never thought to see this again—a bird in flight, the blue sky or drifting clouds."
"There's much more to see." She took his hand, pulled him into the dark shadows of the forest, and thunder rolled. Not overhead, but through her.
Muted light, softened by branches of long-needled pines and massive oaks fell over the enchanted clearing. She knew he approved by the stillness that found him. He took in the scene, his dark eyes roving left to right, canopy to leaf-strewn floor. "I am rewarded again to have lived another day."
"Come, I've brought lunch."
They settled onto a patch of silky grass and pine needles. Sage untied the linen napkin and removed the contents—two apples, thick chunks of cheese, and several pieces of crusty bread.
They ate their lunch in silence except for the nearby call from a mourning dove. "It is the dove's call; do you hear it?" she asked.
He nodded and looked toward the sound.
"They choose one mate for life."
"I have read this."
"Ah, not only do you speak our language, but you read?"
"The children of my village learn to read when they are young." He took a bite from the apple, and Sage wondered how one could look so beautiful while eating. "Long ago, the white traders brought the missionaries into our village. They built schools and convinced the elders to send the children. The Winnebago speak three languages, English, French and Siouan."
"What does the name, Wanapaya, mean?"
"In the white man's tongue, it means Pursuer, a name given me at birth."
A chuckle left her lips. "What did they want you to pursue when you grew up?"
"Food." He laughed with her. "The People count on me to track and hunt their food. I was hunting before you found me by the water."
Recalling his life's blood seeping into the ground beneath him, a shudder passed through her. "I'm glad I found you."
His face took on a serious countenance. "Now I am indebted to you."
"Oh, no." She waved her hand between them. "You are not."
"But I am; it is our way." He leaned forward and touched her arm. "We begin now. Tell me what you wish for."
She felt nothing but the warm touch of his hand on her skin and the soft whisper of his breath near her cheek. The world swam. What she wished for, she dared not say. His gaze held hers and she heard the mad beating of her heart. Maybe his too. She couldn't explain her feelings, didn't have the knowledge or the wherewithal to understand them. She knew when he left, he'd take a part of her with him.
His eyes dazzled her. The rich scent of earth, pine cones and his masculine scent engulfed her. She had prayed for him to come and now he'd be her doom. Her fingers found their way to his clean, sleek hair, and before she knew it, he pulled her to him.
His hot mouth melded with hers. She thought she knew his body after looking at it at length while he lay abed, but nothing had prepared her for the absolute strength and draw. She wanted him and he wanted her, yet to know his love and then surrender it would be the end of her.
His tongue parted her lips, the sensation undoing her. She wound her arms about his neck and moaned against his hot mouth. With a gentle push to her shoulder, her back met the forest floor and his body followed her down. She bore his weight, felt every hard muscle move against her and press her into the hard ground. His knee slid between her legs, pushing her dress up and parting her thighs.
His actions and attempts were not foreign to her. She'd learned more than most by watching animals mate, yet had never experienced real intimacy. The act didn't scare her, but the possible aftermath did. How easy to surrender, allow him to vanquish her, carry in her heart forever the memory of his possession, the sweetness of his love. Yet in the recesses of her dazed mind, she knew she must stop him.
What they had now—this woven bond—would be forever tarnished. His memories of her would be sullied, no longer borne of everything pure and good. It took all her strength, physical and mental, to push against his chest. Her lips still hungered for his kiss and the tortuous ache between her legs wouldn't be sated by the man she hungered for with all her heart.
His body went still above her and a long breath left his lips. "I have dishonored you, and I meant to repay your kindness."
The pain in his eyes crippled her. "You don't understand. It's not because I don't want you."
"If we share this love, you think I will leave and never look back, is that it?"
"I know nothing of your life." Tears came to her eyes. "For all I know, you could have a wife back in this village you speak of."
"It is possible." He drew out the words. "But... not true."
She didn't realize she'd been holding her breath until she spoke. "It's not?"
He shook his head and held her gaze. "I will prove it to you when you return with me."
She searched his eyes. "What did you say?"
"I cannot leave my heart behind. If you turn me down, I will no longer hunt for my People, but will head for the mountains and become-become, what is it your people call a man who removes himself from others?"
"Yes, a hermit. Are you strong enough to live with that until the end of your days?"
"Do not tease me. This is a serious thing you speak of."
He kissed her nose. "I have kissed your sweet lips, felt the softness of your body beneath mine, and I cannot turn away from that now." He rose and pulled her to her feet. "Say yes."
"Are you asking because you find me—?"
"Beautiful? Yes, you are, but your beauty alone would never hold my love. It is so much more than that—your love of the earth, the kindness in your heart, the knowledge you hold of everything that is sacred in my life." He looked around them. "The trees and plants, even the concern you show to the sparrow whose wing is broken." His fingers whispered over her face. "Enough talk. Say, yes."
"Yes," she said struck dumb.
"Good, it is settled. We leave now to prepare your Grandmother."
* * *
A week later, Sage rose at dawn. Sleep had eluded her last night, and what little claimed her left her restless. She placed the tapestry satchel on the bed and checked its contents for the tenth time. What did one pack when leaving for an Indian village? Confident she wouldn't miss anything she'd left behind she closed the bag and glanced about her room for the last time.
When she emerged from the cabin, Wanapaya had mounted the painted pony. Like his rider, Dancer bore grace and agility.
Wanapaya smiled and nodded toward the mount he'd tacked and saddled for her. "Does the gelding have a name?"
She placed her foot in the stirrup and mounted. "Withers."
Peter Pa stepped forward. "I brought her the horse."
"Yes." Sage smiled. "He walked into the yard one day leading Withers by a rope. Grandmother asked how he came by a horse in the wilderness, and he never did arrive at an acceptable answer."
Peter Pa ran his hand along Withers' neck. "Gentle and alert, he'll give you no trouble, son.”
Tears brimmed in Sage's eyes. She'd spent every day of her life with Grandmother, and now her courage faltered.
Evrasina looked up with trembling lips. "Don't forget your prayers, and remember we love you."
A tear slid down her cheek and found her upper lip. "I promise to return soon."
Peter Pa took her hand. "Mind what I've taught you. The signs are there; you need to open your eyes."
She bit her lower lip to hold back the sob. "I will remember everything."
Wanapaya turned his mount north toward the woods and Sage followed. She looked over her shoulder once. The cabin had shrunk to the size of a tinder block. Squaring her shoulders, she focused on the path ahead.
The first day passed in solitude. Wanapaya seemed to sense her turmoil and kept his eyes focused on the surrounding terrain. He'd been ambushed once already and wouldn't allow it to happen again.
At dusk they camped in a secluded clearing shrouded by sturdy cottonwoods. Sage made a meal over the open fire—a thick slice of ham, fried potatoes and warmed up biscuits. The familiar sounds from a nearby river drifted around them, reminding Sage of home. For some odd reason, she found the noise comforting.
She spread her bedroll on the ground a short distance from Wanapaya's and under a full moon, stared into the low-burning fire. A strong wave of loneliness washed over her and for the first time that day she wondered if she'd made the right decision. Light snores came to her in the still night air. Still weak from his wound, the hard day of travel must have worn Wanapaya out. She rolled onto her back and stared at the stars, knowing hours would pass before sleep found her.
* * *
They rose at sunrise and downed a hasty breakfast of corn pones and cold venison before breaking camp. Following the river north, the vast solitude of the prairie stretched for miles and miles, rendering Sage breathless.
At midday, Wanapaya shifted in the saddle and turned to her. "Your heart is heavy."
"You are wishing you stayed home?"
She shook her head.
"I'm nervous." She fidgeted with the reins in her hand. "I know nothing about your way of life and my head swims with questions."
"A full day and another night must pass before we arrive. You ask the questions and I will answer." He smiled. "I will do my best to take your mind from your troubles."
She asked the unknown. He answered and assuaged her fears, about their food, their clothing, customs and beliefs. Hours later, she stopped asking and drew a belly-breath, and then another. So many of her worries had been eased by his words.
"You see, we are not so different than your people. We hunt, we store food, we bury our loved ones and we weep at their loss."
"Thank you. Thank you." she said with a giggle and meant it.
"What amuses you so?"
"The irony. You once told me you were as impatient as the wily fox, and it is not true."
"Do not thank me yet, little one." Desire banked in his eyes. "Even the fox becomes impatient with his prey if she escapes him too many times."
Her heart thudded in a way it shouldn't have. "I would be wise to remember that then."
They camped near a brook at twilight. The night rose around them as daylight waned, a low-burning fire providing the meager light. The dark didn't frighten Sage, but she wasn't accustomed to sleeping under the stars. Sitting near the fire, she gazed up at the sky and watched a patch of clouds smother the moon.
Wanapaya snuck up behind her and pulled her against his chest. His strong arms held her with gentle reluctance. She knew he battled with his mounting desire and his resolve to keep it at bay.
After a lengthy pause, his husky voice cut through the air. "Once you are among the People, your sadness will flee like the wind."
"You must think me a child."
"Look at me."
She shifted and faced him.
"I think you are very brave and very soft against my body."
In the dim light she saw his eyes darken. One hand rested on her shoulder, the other cupped her face. While drifting through a dreamlike state, he kissed her.
By firelight, the man embodied dark beauty. The defined cheekbones and obsidian eyes swam before her, causing the breath to snag in her throat. His hand moved from her shoulder and burned a trail down her back. She brought a hand to his chest and felt his erratic heartbeat beneath her palm. That pleased her.
He sought her lips again and she realized nothing separated their bodies except their clothing. Carried beyond herself with tangled emotions, she'd remove them now if he asked her to.
He broke from the kiss. "If I don't stop now, I will regret it."
She didn't want to care about now. He turned her from him and settled her against his hard torso again. "Have you always been so honorable?"
A short laugh came from his lips. "No, but I'm trying my damnedest to be."
"Thank you," she whispered and didn't mean that at all.
* * *
Against a lurid sun, the outline of lodges appeared in the distance. Pale ribbons of smoke snaked skyward and appeared to touch the clouds. The screech of the raven announced their arrival, and yet Sage knew it wasn't a black bird, but a human voice mimicking its cry.
A noisy chorus of chatter punctuated by an undulating echo rang through the air as they rode in to the Winnebago camp. Dozens of bronze bodies converged, surrounded their mounts, and sent ripples of panic crashing through her.
She kept her eyes on Wanapaya as he maneuvered Dancer to her side, the look in his eyes assuaging her alarm. "The People welcome you as friend. Do not fear."
Their horses came to a halt before an oval-shaped lodge, a wigwam type structure made of woven rush mats upon a framework of poles. A woman emerged from the dwelling; her arms spread wide; her uplifted face stained with tears. Short and stout, her body shook with sobs as she clutched the brave's leg with one hand and wiped the tears from her cheeks with the other. Sage assumed the woman was his mother, and elated to see him. She spoke in their native tongue, the heartfelt words falling from her lips as her son slid from Dancer and embraced her. Long moments later, he pulled back and looked into her eyes, his words low and soothing.
The masses had trailed them, their sun-kissed faces etched with relief and joy. Sage scanned the crowd, her gaze drawn to a magnificent man who stood beyond the jubilation, and also stood apart from his brethren.
Dressed in doeskin from neck to foot, a hawk's feather sprouted from behind his left ear. Tall, with a solid build, a mass of ebony hair streaked with gray, touched his broad shoulders. Majestic in stance; superior in demeanor, he took in the scene with a passive expression.
Wanapaya walked toward him, followed by his mother who clucked around him like an overprotective nester. When the stoic man embraced him, Sage breathed a sigh of relief. Before they arrived in the village, Wanapaya spoke of his family as well as the time of his birth. She recalled his parents' names now, Otter Woman and Storm Cloud.
His father, a member of the great Sioux Nation, had taken a Winnebago woman as his wife. Unable to leave her People, Otter Woman convinced Storm Cloud to share his life with her here. Wanapaya had said, 'My father has not regretted a single day.' Their only child, him, had entered the world In the Moon of the Chokeberries.
'What do we name your son?' she asked my father.
'His name will be Wanapaya, the Pursuer.'
"Why do you wish to give him such a strange name?'
'He will be a tracker for the People, a hunter when their bellies swell from hunger and the animals have gone into hiding.'
'It is a good name,' his mother had agreed.
The celebration of Wanapaya's return lasted long into the night. Sage would learn the People celebrated everything in their lives, needing little encouragement to spread joy. Reenactments of his ordeal and his miraculous survival were played out a hundred times before the night ended. Embellished by his dramatic gestures, his audience rewarded him with the appropriate Oohs and Aahs and then asked him to retell the story one more time.
Weary from the journey and overwhelmed by the festivities, Sage offered little argument when Otter Woman tapped her on the shoulder and motioned her toward the lodge. Inside, a layer of fresh pine boughs covered in animal furs beckoned her. Similar berths had been constructed around the fire, for Wanapaya and his parents she assumed.
Before leaving, the woman turned to her with tears in her eyes and signed with her hands. Otter Woman's message of gratitude rang clear: if Sage hadn't helped him, her son would have died in the forest.
When the woman embraced her, Sage whispered, "You are welcome."
She disappeared through the flap and Sage slumped to the makeshift bed on the ground. The scent of pine needles and acrid smoke spiraled up her nose, familiar aromas that reminded her of home.
Her last thoughts before drifting off were of Grandmother and Peter Pa.