Joan Johnston Colter's Wife

ISBN 13: 9780743469784

Colter's Wife

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9780743469784: Colter's Wife
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New York Times bestselling author Joan Johnston, who "writes brisk romance chock-full of compelling conflicts and strong local color" (Publishers Weekly), evokes the grandeur, excitement, and danger of the American frontier in this sweeping historical novel.

When Kinyan Holloway's husband is killed in a range accident, she has no idea how she and her children will manage. Torn between the Sioux world in which she was raised and maintaining her husband's ranch - the largest in the Wyoming Territory - she knows only that somehow she will not just survive but preserve her children's heritage for them.

Into her life rides Benjamin Colter, a scarred stranger who's fast with his gun. Colter has tried to put vengeance behind him, but the past seems destined to catch up with him. What he wants now is Kinyan Holloway - and her ranch - but he can get them only if he defeats a deadly rival and agrees to become a father to three children who awnt more from him than he's able to give.

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About the Author:

Joan Johnston is the New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of more than fifty novels and novellas with more than 15 million copies of her books in print. She has worked as a director of theatre, drama critic, newspaper editor, college professor, and attorney on her way to becoming a full-time writer. She lives in Colorado and Florida. You can find out more about Joan at JoanJohnston.com.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

1875

Wyoming Territory


Kinyan Holloway had to make a choice in the next few moments that could change the rest of her life. Her mind raced, remembering the past, imagining the future. Time was running out. Rides-the-Wind had demanded her decision.

The Oglala Sioux warrior and the white woman who stood facing him, her waist-length hair whorled in eddies about her by the gentle morning breeze, etched a stark silhouette on the golden predawn horizon. A dog barked and was promptly shushed by an abrupt guttural command from inside one of the many tepees that surrounded them. The four horses tethered nearby stomped and snorted and swished their tails. An older Sioux, wearing only a breechclout as a concession to the already miserable August heat, supervised two impatient youths as they checked the packs on the four mounts in preparation for the coming journey.

The old man's voice, hoarse with age, interrupted the soft murmuring of the couple as they said their farewells. The choice had been made.

"Rides-the-Wind, the day comes."

The warrior clutched the woman to him one last time, then let her go. He took two steps away, then pivoted, speaking to her in a low, urgent voice.

"Do not leave me."

Never had Kinyan thought to hear a Sioux as proud as Rides-the-Wind make such a plea. She clenched her teeth to stop the quivering of her chin. When she thought she'd regained control, she opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out. She swallowed hard, but the lump in her throat didn't get any smaller. It hurt.

Suddenly, Kinyan hurled herself into the arms of the Sioux brave. Her nose and chin dipped into his smooth black hair as she let tears of sorrow fall upon his broad shoulder. She inhaled the man-scent of him, so different from John's. His arms held her tight. Her soft calico dress provided little more barrier between their flesh than his simple buckskin breechclout.

"I'll miss you!" she cried.

Rides-the-Wind grabbed a handful of Kinyan's silky black hair and pulled her head back, baring her anguish to his piercing gaze. Sharp onyx eyes stared down at her. His arrow-straight nose flared with desire, and his thin, tightly pressed lips showed the effort exerted to check that desire.

"You can choose to stay, Kinyan. Your white husband is dead now. You would have been my wife eleven winters ago if Soaring Eagle had not given you as wife to the rancher John Holloway. Only you can quench the fire that burns within me. I have waited for you, I have not taken a wife...." Rides-the-Wind paused when Kinyan shuddered in his arms.

No warrior should be without a wife to care for him, Kinyan thought, and it was her fault that Rides-the-Wind was alone after all these years. Why hadn't she told him long ago she no longer felt the same love for him that they'd shared when they were fourteen- and fifteen-year-old youths?

Those first few days, those first few weeks after her father had forced her to marry John Holloway, she'd ached with loneliness. Yes, she must have loved him then. After all, hadn't she run back to Rides-the-Wind not once, but twice?

Each time, her father had returned her to the white rancher, threatening on the second occasion to beat her mother, Wheat Woman, if she ran away again. And while Soaring Eagle had never beaten her mother, not even when he had first captured her from a wagon train on the Oregon Trail, neither had he ever broken his word. So she had stayed with her white husband.

At first she'd feared Rides-the-Wind would marry someone else. It was only much later she began to fear that he would not. Summer after summer, when John allowed her to visit her parents, she had expected to find that Rides-the-Wind had taken a wife. Yet it had been his sister, Willow, who'd cared for all his needs. If the gossip of the tribe could be believed, he had shared a blanket with other women. Yet he did not ask any one of them to become his wife.

Kinyan had suggested once that he should marry, but he'd sworn he could never love another woman. That was all the balm her conscience had needed, and she had never brought up the subject again.

Over the years, his unchanging devotion was her lifeline to the world she'd left behind. So she'd never told him that her husband had usurped the love that had once been his. And the reason she didn't say something now was sheer cowardice.

She had waited too long.

Now, after eleven years of marriage, John was dead, killed in a freak range accident. Twenty-five years old, a widow with three children, heiress to the Triple Fork, the largest ranch in the Wyoming Territory, Kinyan was free to marry whomever she chose. She should have guessed that when she came to her Sioux family for solace, Rides-the-Wind would ask her to become his wife.

Kinyan now felt the full weight of those eleven years of deception. The twins had been born within a year of her marriage to John, and even with John's constant consideration and kindness, it had taken her that first year to come to understand that she loved her sometimes solemn, sometimes temperamental husband.

Kinyan's fingers went to the engraved gold heart that hung together with a feathered amulet on a short thong around her neck. John had added the heart to the Indian keepsake on her fifteenth birthday, shortly after the birth of the twins. How proud he'd been of his two sons! How he'd cherished her! Kinyan swallowed again, but the lump stayed in her throat.

She glanced at the two fidgeting boys standing by the horses. They were dressed in buckskin breechclouts, elk bones adorning their necks, their hair in short braids. It was little comfort to know that even if she'd loved Rides-the-Wind, she couldn't have accepted his proposal. Her sons deserved the heritage their white father had left them.

An inner voice argued, An Indian would not need to own the land. An Indian would only need so many things as she could carry with her on her own back or pack on the back of her horse. Maybe once it had been that way, Kinyan thought bitterly. But the world of the Oglala Sioux she'd fought against leaving eleven years ago was no more. Things had changed. She had changed. She'd become a misfit -- born into one world, belonging now to another.

But that wasn't the reason she chose not to marry the Sioux brave.

Quite simply, Kinyan wouldn't agree to marry Rides-the-Wind because she didn't love him. But she'd let the lie fester for too long. She couldn't bear to hurt him by telling him the truth, nor was she willing to cut the final cord that bound her to the Sioux.

So she told the warrior another truth -- one that was equally valid -- to explain why she would not become his wife and live once again among the Oglala.

"I can't consider only what I want for myself. I have to think what's best for Josh and Jeremy and Lizbeth."

"I will love your children -- "

Kinyan put her forefinger to the warrior's lips to stop him. His lips were soft and warm, and Kinyan waited for a spark of something -- anything -- to light at the touch. But she felt only regret for the pain she was about to inflict.

"I've never questioned your love for my children, and they return it. But look around you. How can I, when I see the disease, the starvation, the degradation endured by all in this camp, look with hope at a future for my children among the Sioux? If I live among the white man, I know my children will grow healthy and sturdy and strong. I cannot stay with you. I cannot be your wife."

She'd spoken bluntly, brutally even, about a situation that was unspoken, yet could not be denied.

The band of Oglala was confined to the Red Cloud Agency camp, situated on the south bank of the White River near the mouth of White Clay Creek. The surrounding land was flat and grassy as far as the eye could see in any direction, with only the cottonwoods that grew along the banks of the river to break the brown and green monotony.

The buffalo no longer came here, and the tribe's forays for food were discouraged by the soldiers from Fort Laramie, not far to the southwest. A once proud and self-sufficient people had become wards of the white man, at the mercy of pitiless Indian agents.

Kinyan could see the effect of her words in the Sioux's tightening facial muscles, the defiant tilt of his head, the snarling curve of his once-soft lips. She knew he could imagine as well as she the dull-eyed Sioux children whose sharp ribs pressed out beyond their thin skins and whose cheeks were hollow with hunger.

"And if the white man were gone from the land and we could once more freely hunt the buffalo, would your answer be the same?"

"The white man is here to stay. Things will never be as they were."

"There are others besides myself who do not agree with you. When we have forced the white man from the face of the land, I shall ask you again to become my wife."

"It's hopeless to fight the white man. There are too many of them. They have rifles and an endless supply of bullets. Think! Think!"

Frantic with fear, Kinyan grasped the Sioux's shoulders, and would have shaken him like a disobedient child, except his solid strength prevented it. She let her hands fall to her sides, feeling helpless. How could she make him understand?

There were too many white men who thought the only good Indian was a dead Indian. It was almost a joke in Cheyenne. So long as the Sioux stayed in the various agency camps and didn't complain too loudly when the agents fleeced them of their rightful rations from the United States government, all was well. But let soldiers or cowboys catch a buck hunting buffalo too far from camp, and it was liable to be the Indian's hair that left his scalp.

"You can't just -- "

"It is day. You must go now. I will miss you, Kinyan, but I can wait a little longer to have what has always been mine. Have a good journey to the white man's ranch." The warrior had dismissed his woman.

"Rides-the-Wind -- "

This time it was Rides-the-Wind who put his fingertips to Kinyan's lips. He'd stopped her from admitting she didn't love him. If she'd thought her confession would keep him from fighting the white man, she would have forced him to hear it. But she was well aware of his rebelliousness; it was what had caused her to fall in love with him at fourteen. She would only hurt him again, and for nothing.

Kinyan tore herself away and raced for her stallion, Gringalet. A figure stepped out of the shadows, startling an exclamation from her. "Mother!"

Kinyan's impetus carried her into her mother's arms, which were open in welcome. Wheat Woman calmly stroked her daughter's hair until Kinyan's breathing steadied.

"I'm all right now."

Wheat Woman gave Kinyan one last hug before she released her. The flaxen hair that had given Wheat Woman her name gleamed as the golden morning light streaked between the tepees. Not even years spent in the sun had darkened the warm, honey-toned skin that attested to her whiteness, and which she'd passed along to her daughter.

"I wanted to look upon you one last time before you left. I hadn't planned to let you see me," she admitted.

"Oh, Mother, I'm so glad you did. Why didn't you tell me about this talk of war?"

"So you could worry over what cannot be changed? No, it was better left unsaid. Rides-the-Wind was foolish to speak of it to you."

"I told him I wouldn't marry him because of how the tribe must live. He said when the white man is gone, he'll ask me to marry him again. But, Mother, things will never change, and even if they did..."

"You don't love him."

Kinyan's eyes widened for a moment, then closed as she fought not to confirm the point to her mother.

"So you will go back to the ranch. I can see the choice has been difficult for you, but it is where your sons belong." Wheat Woman paused before adding, "And I think now you belong there also."

"I'll be so alone."

It was a confession Kinyan hadn't intended to make. Rides-the-Wind had forced her to think about marriage when she was a mere three months' widow. Would she ever be able to accept another husband after John? He'd been all things to her: father, because he'd been old enough and wise enough to be one; friend, because she'd needed one when she'd been forced from the Indian world to that of the whites; and lover, awakening the maiden she'd been to the woman she'd become.

Without John's anchor, Kinyan had felt adrift between two worlds, and she'd leaned first toward the Indians and then toward the whites, unsure where she belonged.

Until Rides-the-Wind had forced her to make a choice.

Wheat Woman's voice interrupted Kinyan's musing.

"You'll have John's mother, Dorothea, and the children, and we're always here if you're lonely, Kinyan. But I expect you'll be too busy taking care of your children and running the Triple Fork to have time to think about being alone. And now you'd better get started, if you expect to get home today."

Kinyan returned her mother's fierce embrace until it seemed they must crush each other. Then, without giving herself time to think, she mounted her stallion and clapped her heels to the horse's flanks. Gringalet bolted into a gallop that raised clouds of dust in the overgrazed area surrounding the agency camp. Kinyan never looked back, but she could hear the sound of her sons' ponies and Soaring Eagle's pinto, following close behind.

Kinyan spent the morning and most of the afternoon in thoughtful silence. The fourteen-year-old Indian maiden who'd been forced to leave the Oglala Sioux and become the wife of the rancher John Holloway had been lost somewhere over the passage of time. And Kinyan Holloway hadn't been able to find her.

She was a white woman now. Rides-the-Wind was, would always be, a Sioux brave. Once, their lives would have intertwined. Now they would never meet. Her father had set her footsteps among the white man, and it was there Kinyan was convinced she would find her destiny.

Yet she had no idea how she was going to manage to hold on to the Triple Fork now that John was gone. That he'd kept her in virtual ignorance of the workings of the ranch was not so unusual. But the result was that squatters, aware there was no man to challenge them, had already settled on the northeast corner of the ranch. The Triple Fork's foreman, Dardus Penrod, had informed Dorothea about the invasion, and that had prompted John's mother to send for Kinyan.

Because she'd already had condolence visits from the owners of the adjoining spreads, Kinyan knew the white ranchers expected her to resolve her dilemma by either selling the Triple Fork or remarrying. Kinyan had rejected the idea of selling. John had loved the Triple Fork, and his last wish had been for his sons to have it. Neither, on the other hand, would she ever again marry someone she hadn't chosen herself.

That left a third option, which Kinyan had been mulling in the month she'd spent among the Sioux: why couldn't she learn how to do what needed to be done on the ranch herself? She rode as well as any man, and while she was small, she was sturdy. She was quick to learn and not afraid of hard work.

Kinyan had been in the white world long enough to perceive the one fatal flaw in her plan -- the white man's aberrant attitude toward the ability of a woman to do much more than make babies, knit, sew, and cook. Never mind that before she'd married John, Kinyan's life among the Sioux had meant heavy labor from dawn to dusk. A white man's wife had responsibilities limited to caring for the children and the chickens.

Well, the...

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