White Mountain Spirit
by Doris Lemcke
Half-Apache orphan, Elena Santiago has vowed to avenge the murders of the Santa Fe missionaries who raised her—the Apache way. But first, she must masquerade as a White woman to deliver a warning to their friends in Georgia. One look at their son’s gray eyes in a body more like an Apache warrior than a soft, Southern gentleman tells her he could be more dangerous than the enemy who killed her family.
Sean O’Grady has abandoned his dreams of exploring the Wild West to save his childhood friend from marrying a scheming politician. When Elena arrives looking more like a Spanish lady than an Indian mission girl, he wonders if she was sent by the man determined to ruin him.
Virgin or Vixen? The question taunts him as he fights feelings that could get them both killed.
Release Date: November 28, 2017
Genre: Historical Romance
Elena Santiago sat alone in the cool, quiet hall of the Charles Carter School for Indians. “An Apache doesn’t cry.” Yet as soon as she said the words, her white blood betrayed her, flooding her eyes with tears.
Why now? She’d held them back three days ago when the wood peddler brought home the broken and bloody body of the only good white man she’d ever known. She’d even kept them at bay as she stood over a newly dug grave, wishing Marcus Williams a smooth journey into the spirit world.
“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” his widow Judith, recited, clutching her cracked and dog-eared Bible to her breasts. “Be gracious unto him and give him peace,” she prayed to her god as the desert went silent.
As if out of respect for the old frontiersman, no breeze whistled down through the foothills of the Sangre de Christo Mountains. No bird of prey shrieked in the cloudless blue sky, no noisy prairie dog scolded them. Then, “Amen,” floated to heaven on a sudden gust of wind that stirred the desert soil into frantic dust devils around the mourners.
As swirling grains of sand stung Elena’s ankles and eyes, her skin prickled from the chilly touch of a ghostly finger. She knew then that the man she called Grandfather hadn’t died falling from his horse into a ravine. Something terrible had happened. The hoot of an owl from a lone juniper tree, told her someone else would die. “Not yet,” she answered the tempting call to reunite with her murdered father and brother—and Marcus. She had to protect Judith.
Now, waiting outside her adopted mother’s office, the salty taste of grief choked her with memories of other violent deaths. If she gave into it, her heart would be crushed by the weight of her sorrow.
She’d kept memories of the day her village was slaughtered hidden behind a sulfur-smelling fog in the back of her mind. It was eight years ago, but every night since Marcus died, the fog lifted a little until the night before his burial. That night, she’d dreamed of the day the frontiersman and the missionary saved her life.
Her head covered by a burlap bag, she was slung over the rump of a soldier’s mule. Her sweat had long-since dried into a crust on her skin and her breath was shallow. She would see her father and Little Wolf again. Soon.
Instead of the sweet voice of her dead bother calling her to him, what sounded like a growling bear ordered, “Halt! What’s on the mule?”
The tether holding her to the animal broke free. Strong, gentle hands that smelled like lye soap guided her to the hard-packed ground and the feed sack split beneath the point of a Bowie knife. An instant later, she was pulled into the billowing folds of Judith Williams’ skirt.
While Judith held a canteen to Elena’s parched lips, the soldier dismounted. “Troublemaker,” he announced. “Pulled a knife and killed one of my men. I’m taking her back to the reservation at San Carlos.”
Marcus cocked his Winchester rifle. “Well then, you’re a mite off course, Colonel. Last I checked Arizona’s west o’ here. We been followin’ your bloody trail from Squaw Peak an’ you bin headin’ due east.”
With his white beard and piercing blue eyes, Elena had thought he was the white man’s god, sent to take her into the next world. Instead, he aimed the rifle between the soldier’s eyes. “If you don’t want to face trial for tradin’ in Indian slaves, you an’ yer men’ll turn yer yellow asses north now, or try to outrun a bullet later.” A warning shot from the Winchester sent all but the one called Colonel to the trail.
Instead of running for his life, he looked down on them. The sun behind him shadowed his face. “Watch your back, old man.” Then he turned to Judith. “She belongs to me. You can’t hide behind that Bible forever. One day, I’ll have both your ragged white scalps and the girl, too.”
Now, Elena’s dreams told her he’d finally gotten half of his revenge, and she made her own vow. When Marcus’ Comanche partner, Jesse Woods, returned from the Pueblo to protect Judith, she’d find the Colonel and avenge Marcus’ death the Apache way.
Revenge heating her blood, she wiped the traces of her weak, white-woman’s tears from her cheeks, straightened her blue, homespun shirt over her striped skirt, and entered the cluttered room without a sound.
Judith stood with her back to the door, staring through a tiny leaded glass window facing El Royale St. “It should be raining, Elena,” she said without turning. “You need rain to mourn properly.”
Elena smiled at the woman who had faced down an Army to save a ragged half-breed girl, and approached the window. “Marcus hated rain, Madre. The clear sky and bright sun of the West gave him strength. This is his spirit’s home, as it is mine.”
Judith turned. In eight years, her hair had grown more silver than gold. And her shoulders sagged from the burden of supporting Apache and Navaho students on the meager donations from her New England benefactors. Yet the courage, faith, and intelligence in her cobalt blue eyes had never faded.
After a quick embrace, she motioned for Elena to sit opposite her at a scarred old desk in a corner of the room. “It’s true he loved the West, dear,” she said to the pain behind Elena’s mask. “But unfortunately, he—we, have unfinished business. Back East.”
She removed Marcus’ saddlebag from a nail on the wall behind her and pulled out an envelope. Taking Elena’s hand in hers, she gazed into her eyes. “My husband had intended to post this with Wells Fargo, but he was too late. There is no time now to wait for the post. More than ever, it must be delivered quickly to our dear friends, Patrick and Camilla O’Grady, in Georgia.”
Elena sighed with relief. If Judith visited her friends in the East and Jesse managed the school, she could search for Marcus’ killer, knowing her adoptive mother was safe. Still, her mind reeled with questions. With Jesse still gone, who would manage the school? “When are you leaving?”
Judith leaned closer to whisper, “I cannot go. You must be my messenger.”
This time Elena didn’t fight the tears spilling from her eyes. Struggling to breathe in without being able to breathe out, her lungs burned. Her heart beat fast in its effort to survive.
No. The man who killed Marcus was in Santa Fe! She knew it. The desert breeze had whispered, “He’s here” when the last clump of earth covered his coffin.At first, she thought it meant Marcus’ spirit had stayed behind to protect them, but her dream told her it was the man who murdered him. She couldn’t leave Judith alone for him to kill her, too. She pulled her hands free. “No. Please, Madre. I cannot.”
Tears followed the weathered landscape of Judith’s face, to stain the envelope on the desk. Her voice weary, her hands still holding Elena’s, she spoke. “There is no one else to send. I’m too old to travel and I have work to do here. Many lives depend on the fast and safe delivery of this letter.”
In the space of only a few days, Judith seemed to have grown old. As if the indomitable spirit that had buried three husbands and two children, and endured nearly a year as a Comanche prisoner, was fading. Elena longed to reach out and hold her in her arms. To give her own strength to the woman who had given her a new life, but Judith wouldn’t welcome it. They had work to do, and work always came first.
“I need your help, Querida,” Judith said. “Like the Century Plant blooming only once in a generation, an evil from long before you were born has returned. I can’t stop it without your help.”
Elena’s heart broke for the only mother she’d known since she was ten years old. As if reaching back in time, she touched the silver cross at her neck. Her Spanish mother gave it to her before she died giving birth to Little Wolf. “Protect him, Querida,” were Maria Concetta Santiago’s last words.
But she had failed. Held kicking and screaming by a soldier, she’d watched as another one ran a bayonet through the four-year-old boy’s chest and took his hair for a fifteen-dollar bounty. What could be more evil than that?
“What evil, Madre?” She whispered lest she call forth the embodiment of the voice that haunted her sleep.
Judith shook her head and dabbed at her cheeks with the same linen handkerchief that had washed the dirt and blood from Elena’s face so long ago. She rose and walked around the desk to pull her into her arms. “The story is too long to tell, my dear. Just know that I will never, ever, let you pay for the mistake I made twenty-five years ago. I only ask for your help and forgiveness as I set you on this mission.”
“To Georgia?” Elena whispered against Judith’s broad shoulder.
She knew about Georgia. The soldier who murdered her village was going to take her to a place there called Atlanta, and when she learned to read English, she looked it up. It was far to the east, near the other sea. A place where it never snowed. Where white people made slaves of those with dark skin. To her, it was the white man’s hell. There must be another way.
She pulled away to offer an alternative. “You can send Jesse when he returns. He is half white and lived among them in the East. He knows their ways.”
Ashamed of showing her fear of going into the land of her enemies, she lowered her gaze. “Por favor, Mi Madre, save for you and Grandfather, I cannot walk among the whites even here, without feeling their hate and hating them also in return.”
When she looked up, Judith was smiling. “Strong words for an eighteen-year-old girl. There is good and bad in every race, Elena. Don’t forget that, like Jesse, you are half white. Perhaps the time has finally come for you to learn the ways of your mother’s people.”
She raised the lid of an old trunk to pull out a stylish green gown the color of a pine forest in summer. Leading Elena to the oval mirror in a corner of the room, she held it in front of her and pulled her long, ebony braid up to the crown of her head, resting her other hand on Elena’s shoulder.
“You can be whoever you want to be Elena: Indian, Mexican, even a Spanish lady like your mother. The world is full of choices, but until you see them, how will you know the right one?”
Then she winked. “The O’Grady’s will welcome you. In fact, Patrick and Camilla have two sons not much older than you. I’m told that like you, Clay loves horses and has a gentle hand. The oldest is Sean. He is…well, Sean is like a panther, a restless loner, still looking for his place in the world.”
Elena understood then that like any good mother, Judith was trying to give her a better life. However, she only wanted her own life, a home and family of her own. A life without fear that the Colonel would find her. She stepped away from the gown that had turned her reflection into a stranger.
Anger replaced her fear. “Is that what this trip is about? Is there really a letter or is this just a way to find a white husband for me? Must I repay you for saving me from the slave trader by becoming a slave to your friends?” She clasped her hand over her mouth at the pain on Judith’s loving face.
The older woman sighed and went back to face the window. “We both know better than that. Come here and take a good look.”
When Elena joined her, she pointed to the cowboys ambling toward the saloons on Front St. Then to a few Indians sleeping in doorways, and finally to Juan Pedro whipping his burro loaded with wood.
“This is your future if you stay here. Do you want to wed Juan Pedro and let him beat you like he does his burro? Or would you rather work in one of the saloons for the likes of Alex Dooley, the faro dealer?” She touched Elena’s cheek. “You are far too beautiful, intelligent, and talented to waste your life here without knowing what choices the world holds for you.”
As if the speech had taken too much of her strength, she returned to her desk and folded her hands. “All I ask is that you deliver this letter to the O’Gradys and stay with them for thirty days while Jesse and I finish...other business. I will send you money then. If you don’t like it there, you can come back to your old life—and I will welcome you with open arms.”