Christopher Brandon stood in the stern of the clipper and stared at the empty horizon left in its wake. The past few weeks had taken his life by storm, and he was still spinning in the aftermath… and still further to go… away from the only life he had known and toward a world he knew nothing of, a foreign grandfather he had never met.
The fabric tied at his neck strangled him, and he tugged at it with a sun-bronzed finger. He had long since tossed the confining gloves into the churning sea below, and the cravat was next. How a man could reconcile himself to wearing such things was beyond his understanding. He couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t feel, and worst of all, he felt all semblance of his control slipping away from his grasp as rapidly as the declining sight of land behind them.
His heart yearned to go home.
Back to the place where he was simply Grinning Badger.
But he had seen the destruction with his own eyes. The entire village slaughtered, and he was helpless to stop it. The image of White Bird lying face down in front of her lodge—unarmed, unprotected—seared his brain. The soldiers cut her down on the way out to cook the morning meal. The only mother he had known for fifteen years.
He was spared. His pale skin marked him, and he was captured, tethered, and dragged back to the soldiers’ fortress, while the screams of the women, children and young braves echoed in his ears.
And he had fought—anyone who came near him tasted his wrath—until they had beaten him unconscious and deposited him in a stone cell with an armed guard.
They left him there for three days with no food or water. Their efforts to break his spirit, force him into submission. But he had no intention of breaking. Somehow he would escape, find the remnants of his clan, gather reinforcements, and attack the soldiers with a force they had never before seen.
After three days, however, his tongue had swollen in his mouth, he was seeing spirits wander in and out through the walls of the cell, and he had a vision of his mother, calling him in for dinner when he was only a boy.
It wasn’t White Bird.
It was another woman. One he had long forgotten. The white woman who had given birth to him, who had sung to him as she tucked him into bed at night, read to him by the lantern light, and held him when he woke up crying in the night.
“Mama,” he had whispered through his parched lips. The first English word he had heard or spoken in fifteen years. The apparition turned to him and smiled, opening her arms wide to beckon him to her.
As he reached out for her, darkness closed around him, claiming him completely.
When he regained consciousness, he was in a soft bed. Someone held up his head and ladled cool water down his dry throat. It stung all the way down, but never had anything felt better to him.
The fog gradually lifted from his eyes, and a man dressed in the red coat of a British uniform hovered over him.
“Are you Christopher Brandon? The son of Major Marcus Brandon?” The words fell on his ears like a tomahawk splitting into the trunk of a tree. The faint wisp of memory sent tendrils of understanding. The names were familiar, striking a chord deeply buried in his mind.
But Grinning Badger didn’t want to understand.
So he just stared at the pale ghost-like face and waited in silence.
The man’s frown creased his pasty white face, and he turned angrily on the people around him, yelling unintelligible gibberish, then he disappeared.
Sweet darkness found him again, and he slept.
When the light began to filter through again, another ladle of water was poured down his throat, which he gulped greedily. Beside the bed stood a man he recognized as a Cheyenne scout. The soldiers had often used him as a translator in their interactions with the Creek.
The British officer stood next to him speaking louder than necessary. As if the problem was that his captive was deaf rather than simply not understanding the harsh sounds exploding from his tongue.
The Cheyenne gazed at Grinning Badger with indifference and translated into the soothing, sweet words his ears longed for.
“The soldier thinks you are the son of a white chief from across the sea.”
Grinning Badger stared at him a long moment, trying to recover the fleeting memory that eluded him.
“I am the son of Leaping Elk and White Bird. My family was slaughtered and my village burned by these soldiers.”
“You are a white man.”
“I am Creek.”
“The Creek are no more.”
Grinning Badger tensed and allowed his gaze to fall on the British officer who was staring at him intently as though he was growing impatient for the answers he wanted. His fists were clenched at his sides.
“The Creek will rise again.” He spat out the words, glaring into the soldier’s dull green eyes—shallow, murky pools of deceit and murder. Nothing like the depth of pride and nobility in Leaping Elk’s dark eyes.
The soldier was pink and fleshy. His nose was red and round, and his cheeks jiggled when he spoke, like ripples from dropping a stone in a pool of thick mud.
“What did he say? Is he the duke’s grandson?”
“Yes,” the Cheyenne scout answered.