She was tied to a pole in the center of the Sioux village, naked from the waist up. What was left of her bodice was bunched at her waist above a striped muslin skirt. She still wore a pair of dusty boots. The top of one creamy shoulder was unblemished, but the rest of her back was so crisscrossed with bloody stripes that there was barely any flesh left. The blond pigtail that ran a short distance down her nape was crusted with dried blood. Her head had sunk forward, and he wondered if she was dead.
As he watched, she lifted her head and straightened her shoulders almost defiantly, emitting a harsh, wrenching sound that caused his insides to clench in sympathetic response to the excruciating pain she must be feeling. He turned his gaze to the Indian holding the bullwhip being used to torment her.
The Sioux’s cheek had been laid bare almost to the bone, in a red slash very much like the ones on the girl’s back. The Indian had paused briefly to note the two white men riding into camp with the reservation Sioux guide who’d brought them, but he was obviously impatient to return to his brutal work.
Marcus Wharton, the Duke of Blackthorne, turned to his guide and said, “Ask him why he’s whipping the girl.”
The Sioux with the bullwhip answered the question in a guttural tongue, gesturing first to his cheek and then to the girl’s back, his mouth twisted in a malicious smile.
“She strike him with whip when he attack her wagon,” the guide translated. “Hurt face. Knock him off pony. He punish. No one laugh at Three Crows again.”
Blackthorne shared a look of disgust and disbelief with his future brother-in-law, David Madison, the Earl of Seaton. Seaton had joined him on his journey across the American West, a last desperate bid to enjoy his freedom, before he married the earl’s sister, Fanny, and settled down to his responsibilities as the eighth Duke of Blackthorne.
As he stared at the scene in front of him, Blackthorne suddenly realized that he’d had his fill of adventure. He’d seen a great deal of cruelty in his twenty-five years, but nothing as savage as this.
To his horror, before he could say or do anything to rescue the poor girl, the Sioux called Three Crows sent the whip cracking toward her wounded back. The tip caught the untouched flesh at her shoulder, creating a bloody gash where none had previously existed.
The horrible cry of agony that escaped her lips had not yet died before Blackthorne was off his horse. He wrenched the whip from the Sioux’s grasp and threw it away.
Three Crows pulled a knife from a sheath at his waist and stabbed at Blackthorne’s belly.
Blackthorne twisted his body so the blade that would have gutted him merely ripped through his waistcoat. He kept his eyes on his foe, avoiding another slash of the Indian’s knife as he retrieved his own knife from his boot. He gripped the shaft so he could stab or slice, moving in a cautious circle along with the Sioux, as they took each other’s measure.
Three Crows was shorter than Blackthorne’s six-foot height, with a thick, muscular body and arms. He stared with hate from eyes that were almost black, breathing hard through a flat nose and an open, thin-lipped mouth. He said something in his guttural tongue that needed no translation.
The Sioux clearly intended not just to kill him, but to cut him into painful little pieces.
The crowd that had been oddly missing while the Sioux whipped his prisoner suddenly surrounded them.
Three Crows’ teeth were bared, his muscles taut, as he waited for Blackthorne to make his move.
He’d been told that this band of Sioux were renegades who’d fled the reservation, but who might be willing to include him in their buffalo hunt, if he traded a few trinkets with them. He realized he should have tried that road first where the girl was concerned. He and Seaton might find themselves in dire straits if he ended up wounding—or killing—this man. Not to mention how devastated his grandmother would be if he ended up getting himself killed in a knife fight before he’d married and produced an heir.
The Sioux’s dark eyes were focused intently on the knife in Blackthorne’s hand, but the Indian’s gaze wasn’t aimed at the very sharp blade, but on the intricately carved whalebone handle.
Blackthorne took a step back and opened his hand so the knife lay flat on his palm.
The Sioux’s eyes narrowed as he considered whether this was some ploy to distract him, so the Englishman could attack.
Blackthorne kept his gaze centered on Three Crows as he said to his Sioux guide, “Ask him if he’d like to have the knife.”
“Blackthorne, you can’t bargain with—”
He cut Seaton off and repeated in a steely voice, “Ask him if he’d like to have the knife.”
His opponent looked confused, and then disdainful, as he first listened, and then replied to the guide’s speech.
“Three Crows says he will take the knife when you are dead,” the guide interpreted.
“Tell him I’ll give him the knife in exchange for the girl.” Blackthorne saw the Indian open his mouth to refuse and reached into his pocket to pull out his grandfather’s gold watch. He let it dangle from the watch chain so the sunlight reflected off the shimmering surface. “Along with this.”
“Be still, Seaton, and let the man think.” He could see the Sioux was as covetous of the watch as he was of the knife.
Three Crows glanced toward the girl, whose body lay slack against the pole. He abandoned his crouch and tucked his knife back into its sheath, then held out his hand.
Blackthorne dropped the watch into the Indian’s palm, then flipped the knife and offered it to him by the carved handle.
“The girl’s probably going to die anyway,” David hissed in his ear. “Why would you give up your grandfather’s watch? And that knife goes back to the first Duke of Blackthorne. It’s priceless. And irreplaceable.”
Without warning, Three Crows slashed out with the knife Blackthorne had given him. He grabbed the Sioux’s swinging wrist with one hand and balled his other hand into a fist that connected with the Indian’s chin. He let go as Three Crows fell in a heap.
Blackthorne felt his friend edging toward him and turned to eye the Indians gathered around them. He reached down and took his knife from the Sioux’s hand, then walked to the pole and used it to cut the woman free. As she fell into his arms, he let the knife drop to the ground. A bargain was a bargain. He’d promised the knife and his watch in exchange for the girl. A Blackthorne’s word was as good as gold.
As her head dropped back over his arm, and he saw the damage to her face, he wished he hadn’t bargained with the Sioux. He should have eviscerated him.
The girl’s features were unrecognizable. Her eyes were so puffy and bruised, he couldn’t tell what color they were. Her nose had been broken. Her lips were split, and blood ran down her chin. He was pleased to see dried blood under her ragged nails, proof that she’d fought back.
“Now that you have her, what do you plan to do with her?”
He turned to face his friend. “Get her to a doctor.”
“The closest doctor is at Fort Laramie. It’s the opposite direction from home. Considering the telegram from your grandmother saying you’re needed there, I don’t think we can stay around for the weeks—or months—it’s going to take that girl to recover.”
“Then we’ll take her with us.”
“She’s likely got family around here somewhere. We should try to find them instead of hauling her halfway across the world.”
“Her family could be anywhere. For all we know they might be dead.”
“She needs help we can’t give her.”
“I’m not leaving her behind,” Blackthorne said, knowing his behavior was irrational but finding himself strangely unable to abandon the girl. “I want to make certain she gets the best help possible.”
“Fine,” Seaton said. “Can we go now? That Indian’s starting to wake up. I don’t want to be here when he does.”
The girl moaned as Blackthorne shifted her in his arms. He brushed a strand of bloody hair away from her battered face. “It’s all right,” he murmured. “I have you. You’re safe now.”