“Another great Joan Johnston book!” – Mary C., 5-Star Amazon Customer Review
Western Historical – Single Titles
COLTER’S WIFE is the second book I ever wrote–and one of my favorites. It’s a western historical romance, characters from which, including half-Sioux Kinyan Holloway, her rancher husband John, and their twin sons, Josh and Jeremy, are featured in the second book of the Mail-Order Bride series, WYOMING BRIDE.
When Kinyan Holloway’s husband is killed in a range accident, she has no idea how she and her young family will survive in the rugged Wyoming Territory. Should she return to the Sioux world in which she was raised . . . or marry a man she despises to preserve her husband’s vast ranching empire.
Kinyan still has not decided when Benjamin Colter rides into her life. A man who for many years has been ruled by a need for vengeance, the scarred gunslinger longs to put that life behind him. What he wants now is Kinyan Holloway— and her ranch. Kinyan is ready to bargain: Colter can have both her and the ranch—if he defeats a deadly rival . . . and agrees to become a father to three children who want more from him than he’s able to give.
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 good citizens of Cheyenne were about to get their first taste of something a little different, Kinyan thought. At least she was going to give it a try.
By the time she reached this momentous decision, the small party had been riding over Triple Fork land for several hours and only had a short distance to travel before they reached the ranch house. The shallow peaks of the Laramie Mountains, which formed the western border of the Triple Fork, beckoned to her, and Kinyan wanted — needed — one last flirtation with freedom before she again submitted herself to the strictures of the white world.
“I’ll race you to that rock!”
With Gringalet prancing in excitement beneath her and a grin of pure pleasure on her face, Kinyan turned first to the right and then to the left to check for agreement from the two ten-year-old boys who flanked her on their ponies. She already knew the response she was going to get, and it pleased her to think how well she knew her sons.
“Sure, Ma, on the count of three,” Josh agreed, as he gathered the reins and crouched forward until his hawklike nose stuck well into the dark mane of his buckskin gelding.
“Hold on,” Jeremy countered with a squeaky shout. “First we gotta get the rules straight.”
Kinyan’s grin broadened. Everything was as it should be — Josh, the elder twin, ever impulsive; Jeremy, the younger, ever practical.
“We’ll let Grandfather give us the go. Whoever reaches that big rock at the base of the mountains first wins.”
Kinyan glanced over her shoulder at her father, who sat straight and tall as a war lance on his spotted pony, to get his concurrence to Jeremy’s announcement and suddenly saw him not as he had been, but as he was now. The years had not been kind to him — certainly no kinder than the white man to the Sioux — for he’d survived long enough to become a war chief with no war to fight.
Kinyan didn’t allow herself to feel sorry for him. She would never forgive her father for manipulating her marriage to John Holloway in order to pay a debt of honor — notwithstanding the happy result. She ignored the inner voice that urged her to pardon him for that one transgression before it was too late. She simply couldn’t.
“I had not realized you were in such a hurry to be home,” Soaring Eagle said.
Kinyan felt the squeeze begin around her heart at the word home. She was headed for the place that had become her refuge. Yet no husband waited there to hold her in his arms, to send her pulse racing when he kissed her in that special place behind her ear. She must put the past behind her, where it belonged. She must see only the future.
“You know you are welcome to return and stay among us,” Soaring Eagle offered in response to the tautness of Kinyan’s features.
“I need to get back to the Triple Fork.”
“What can you hope to do about those thieves upon the land that your foreman is not already doing?” Soaring Eagle asked.
“I don’t know,” Kinyan admitted. “But I have to go back. Dardus wants to talk to me about the squatters, and some of John’s friends have stopped by to see if I need help. Dorothea has kept my absence a secret for long enough. I am bearing my grief well in the solitude of my room,” Kinyan said, her lips quirking in amusement as she gave the excuse she and Dorothea had made up for those well-wishers who had had to be turned away.
“You have borne your grief well.”
No expression showed on the face of the Sioux chief. Through long practice, he’d learned to keep his feelings hidden. Yet in his heart, Soaring Eagle smiled. There was no comparison between the hopeful young woman with sparkling eyes who faced him now and the devastated widow who’d arrived at the Oglala Sioux camp a month ago with her two sons.
Soaring Eagle had watched Kinyan try desperately to belong once again to the world she’d left behind at fourteen, when he’d commanded her to marry John Holloway. He’d known the moment when Kinyan realized she could never come back to live among the Sioux.
With his onyx eyes, broad, flattened nose, and almost nonexistent upper lip, he looked little like his half-white daughter. Yet he understood her better than she did herself. He had always known she would return to the white man’s ranch.
He’d come to regret his decision to give her to the white man. But he’d made a promise, and he never broke his word. Had he known at the outset that the price he would pay for keeping his vow was his daughter’s love, he would never have agreed to the improbable scheme when it had been suggested to him so many years ago.
Yet Kinyan had not changed completely from the mischievous girl he remembered. Unheeding of the proprieties demanded by the white world, she had efficiently gathered up the flowing skirt of her calico dress and tucked it under her thighs so it wouldn’t whip about in the upcoming contest, leaving a goodly amount of thigh showing.
Soaring Eagle chuckled, a low sound that never passed beyond the depths of his broad chest. Kinyan’s name, which meant “One-Who-Flies” in Sioux and which she’d acquired because of her habit of racing to get from one place to another, suited her well even now.
“If you are ready,” Soaring Eagle announced, “I will start this race and then follow to judge who first reaches the rock at the edge of that far gully.”
The three racers lined up their horses, but Kinyan forced them to hold the start while she tucked the skirt of the calico dress even higher up under her thighs so it wouldn’t get in her way. Of course in the past she’d pulled her buckskin dress up just so, but white women didn’t do such things.
Kinyan defiantly gave the calico an extra tuck. She wasn’t ashamed of the trim brown thighs and slender calves that lay exposed to view. It was the Indian side of Kinyan that had chosen the red dress. She would not wear black and mourn as the white man. Besides, the white voice within her reasoned, there was no one here to see her.
“Come on, Ma,” Josh urged. “Hurry up!”
“I’m ready now.” Kinyan leaned forward, her eyes focused on the mountains ahead, waiting for the command to start.
At her father’s guttural “Go!” Kinyan spurred her mighty stallion, bounding forward into the lead. With a hoot of laughter, she taunted her sons, “I’ll be waiting for you at the finish line. Don’t be too long!” She leaned forward to burrow her face in the chestnut mane and laid her hand on Gringalet’s neck. It was a signal between them, and the stallion began to run full out for the sheer love of it.
The pounding hooves faded back on either side of her, until Kinyan heard only the roar of the wind that sent her long black hair whipping and snapping like streamers on a gonfalon behind her, felt only the warm afternoon sun beating down upon her shoulders and the bunching muscles of the straining animal between her thighs. The acrid sweat of her horse and the fresh, pungent pines blended in a wild perfume that caused her nostrils to flare in an attempt to absorb as much of the tantalizing odor as possible.
Kinyan increased her distance from her sons with each stride of her magnificent chestnut stallion. Behind her, she heard Jeremy’s gleeful war whoop. She glanced over her shoulder and grinned as she watched both of the half-naked, berry-brown boys swinging their stone and rawhide war clubs in fearsome arcs about their heads. She laughed aloud when her sedate father joined the boys, his shrieking war cry hauntingly fierce, enough to shatter the nerve of any enemy.
Her eyes blurred by the blinding wind, Kinyan put her worries behind her and concentrated instead on the powerful muscles that moved between her thighs, taking her ever forward to the beauty of the cool mountains and away from the sadness of the recent past.
Kinyan pressed her cheek to Gringalet’s mane as she neared the large rock that signaled the end of the race. In a moment she would have to rein in the stallion to keep him from charging headlong into the pines.
One second Kinyan was lying close to the neck of her great stallion, the next a steel-thewed arm had wrapped itself around her waist and she was torn from the saddle, lifted bodily into the air, and crushed against a hard, muscular chest.
For a moment, Kinyan didn’t comprehend what had happened to her. Her horror, when she perceived the gun aimed at the three who followed her, forced the air from her chest in what would have been a cry of warning.
Before she could utter the scream rising in her throat, a callused palm snaked around from the other side and clamped across her mouth. Her waist-length tresses tangled around her, impeding her struggle as she writhed and scratched like a wildcat in her captor’s embrace.
Kinyan froze when a harsh male voice snapped, “Hellfire! Shut up and be still, or you’re liable to get yourself killed!”
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Denise – 5-Star Amazon Customer Review
“Loved it! I loved the characters. Colter’s past story really made me feel his pain. There were times when I shed some tears myself.”
Print Length: 400 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, September 2003