That night, as she sat at the campfire watching her father cooking their supper, she shifted her position to ease the pressure on her sore backside and inadvertently met the gaze of Dog Lies Sleeping, something she’d been avoiding since she’d retied the horse to the wagon earlier that day. Instead of making some embarrassingly frank observation about her lack of riding ability in comparison to that of an Indian girl’s, Dog Lies Sleeping looked at her steadily in the leaping firelight and asked what seemed an entirely inconsequential question: “What does your name mean?”
“What does my name mean?” she repeated after a moment’s thought.
When he nodded, she explained that she’d been named for a flower that grew in her mother’s land of England, a place across the sea. He made a disapproving grunt, and Sheridan was so startled that she said, “Well, then, what should my name be?”
“Not flower, you,” he said, studying her freckled face and unruly hair. “Fire, you. Flames. Burn bright.”
“What? Oh!” she said, laughing as understanding dawned. “You mean my hair looks like it’s on fire because of its color?” Despite his aloof manner, abrupt speech, and ill-behaved horse, Sheridan was, as usual, naturally friendly, incurably curious, and incapable of carrying a grudge for more than an hour. “My papa calls me ‘carrot’ because of my hair,” she said with a smile. “A carrot is an orange vegetable . . . like . . . like corn is a vegetable,” she added. “That is why he calls me ‘carrot.’?”
“White men are not as good as Indians for giving names.”
Politely refraining from pointing out that being named for a dog wasn’t exactly preferable to being referred to as a vegetable, Sheridan said, “What sort of name would an Indian give me?”
“Hair of Flames,” he announced. “If you were boy, name you Wise for Years.”
“What?” Sheridan asked blankly.
“You wise already,” he clarified awkwardly. “Wise, but not old. Young.”
“Oh, I do like being called wise!” Sheridan exclaimed, instantly reversing her earlier decision and deciding she liked him very well, indeed. “Wise for Years,” she repeated, tossing a happy look at her amused father.
“You girl,” he contradicted, dampening her glee with his attitude of male superiority. “Girls not wise. Call you Hair of Flames.”
Sheridan decided to like him anyway and to stifle her indignant retort that her papa thought she was very smart indeed, contrary to his opinion. “Hair of Flames is a very nice name,” she said instead.
He smiled then for the first time, a knowing smile that took decades off his face and made it clear he was aware of her restraint in the face of his provocation. “You Wise for Years,” he said, his grin widening as he looked at her papa and nodded.
Her father nodded his agreement in return, and Sheridan decided, as she often did, that life was really quite wonderfully exhilarating, and that no matter how different people seemed on the outside, on the inside they were much the same. They liked to laugh and talk and dream . . . and pretend that they were always brave, never in pain, and that sorrow was merely a bad mood that would soon pass. And which usually did.
At breakfast the next morning, her father complimented the beautiful braided and beaded belt that Dog Lies Sleeping wore around his deerskin breeches and discovered that the Indian had made it himself. Within moments, a business deal was struck, and Dog Lies Sleeping agreed to fashion belts and bracelets for her father to sell along their route.
With their new “partner’s” permission, she named the horse Runs Fast, and in the days that followed, Sheridan rode him constantly. While her father and Dog Lies Sleeping made their more dignified way along the trail in the wagon, she galloped ahead, then raced back to them, crouched low over the horse’s neck, her hair tossing in the wind and mingling with the horse’s flying mane, her laughter ringing out beneath the bright blue sky. On the same day she conquered her fear of a racing gallop, she proudly asked Dog Lies Sleeping if she was beginning to ride as well as an Indian boy. He looked at her as if such a possibility were absurd, as well as impossible, then he tossed the core of the apple he’d been eating into the grass beside the road. “Can Wise for Years pick that up from back of running horse?” he replied, pointing to the core.
“Of course not,” Sherry said, baffled.
“Indian boy do.”
In the three years that followed, Sherry learned to do that and a great many other feats—some of which evoked worried warnings from her father. Dog Lies Sleeping greeted each of her successes with an offhand grunt of approval, followed by yet another new, seemingly impossible, challenge, and sooner or later, Sherry rose to every one. Their income increased as a result of Dog Lies Sleeping’s intricate handiwork, and they ate much better as a result of his superior hunting and fishing skills. If people found them a peculiar trio—the old Indian, the young girl who wore deerskin pants and who could ride not only bareback and astride but backward at a full-out gallop, and the amiable, soft-spoken Irishman who gambled regularly but with cautious restraint—Sherry didn’t notice it. In fact, she rather thought the folk who lived in busy, crowded towns such as Baltimore, Augusta, and Charlotte led very odd, stifled lives compared to theirs. In fact, she didn’t mind in the least that her papa was taking so long to win enough money to build their mansion in the village of Sherwyn’s Glen.
She mentioned that very thing to Raphael Benavente, a handsome, blue-eyed Spaniard in his mid-twenties, a few days after he decided to travel with them toward Savannah on his way from St. Augustine.
“Cara mia,” he had said, laughing heartily. “It is good you are not in a hurry, for your papa is a very bad gambler. I sat across from him last night in a little game at Madame Gertrude’s establishment, and there was much cheating.”
“My papa would never cheat!” she’d protested, leaping to her feet in indignation.
“No, this I believe,” he quickly assured her, catching her wrist as she whirled around. “But he did not realize that others were cheating.”
“You should have—” her eyes dropped to the gun he wore at his hip, and she grew even angrier at the idea of someone cheating her papa out of their hard-earned money—“shot them! Yes, shot them all, that’s what!”
“That I could not do, querida,” he stated, while amusement again lit his face. “Because, you see, I was one of the cheaters.”
Sheridan yanked her wrist free. “You cheated my papa?”
“No, no,” he said, making an unsuccessful effort to sober his expression. “I only cheat when it is entirely necessary—such as when others are cheating—and I only cheat those who would cheat me.”
As she later learned, Raphael was something of an expert at gambling, having been, by his own admission, cast out of his family’s huge hacienda in Mexico as punishment for what he called his “many bad ways.”
Sheridan, who prized her own tiny family, was dismayed to discover that some parents actually cast their children out, and she was equally dismayed at the thought that Raphael might have committed some sort of unspeakable deed to warrant that. When she cautiously broached the subject to her father, he put his arm reassuringly around her shoulders and said that Raphael had explained the real reason he’d been sent away by his family, and that it had something to do with caring too much for a lady who was unfortunately already married.
Sheridan accepted his explanation without further question, not only because her father was always very careful about the character of any man allowed to travel with them for an extended length of time, but also because she wanted to think the best of Raphael. Although she was only twelve years old, she was positive Raphael Benavente was the handsomest and most charming man on earth—with the exception of her father, of course.
He told her wonderful stories, teased her about her ruffian ways, and told her that she was going to be a very, very beautiful woman someday. He said her eyes were as cool as gray storm clouds and that God had given them to her to go with the
fire in her hair. Until then, Sheridan hadn’t cared in the least about her appearance, but she hoped devoutly that Raphael was correct about her future looks and that he would wait around to find out. Until then she was content to bask in his company and be treated like a child.
Unlike most of the travellers they encountered, Rafe always seemed to have plenty of money and no particular destination or goal in mind. He gambled more often than her father did and spent his winnings as he pleased. One day, after they’d set up their wagon on the fringe of Savannah, Georgia, he disappeared for four days and nights. When he reappeared on the fifth day, he reeked of perfume and whiskey. Based on the snatches of conversation she’d overheard the year before among a group of married women heading to Missouri with their husbands in a small caravan, she concluded that Rafe’s state was proof he’d been in the company of “a harlot.” Although she had an incomplete idea of what constituted a harlot, she knew from that same conversation that a harlot was a woman who was not respectable and who possessed some sort of evil power to “lead a man away from the path of righteousness.” Although Sherry did not know exactly what a woman did to become not respectable, she knew enough to react instinctively.
When Rafe returned that day, unshaven and smelling of harlots, Sheridan had been on her knees, trying to phrase an awkward prayer for his safety and trying not to cry with fear. Within moments, she went from fear to jealous indignation, and she stayed aloof and angry for a record full day. When his cajolery didn’t soften her, he shrugged and seemed not to care, but the following night, he strolled into their camp with a mischievous grin on his face and a guitar in his hands. Pretending to ignore her, he sat down across the fire from her and began to play.
Sherry had heard other guitars played before, but not the way Rafe played this one. Beneath his nimble fingers, the strings vibrated with a strange, pulsating rhythm that made her heart beat faster and her toes wiggle in her boots in time with the tempo. Then suddenly the tempo changed and the music became incredibly wistful and so sad that the guitar itself seemed to be crying. The third melody he played was light and gay, and he looked at her across the campfire, gave her a wink, and began to say the words that went with the song as if he were saying them to her. They told the story of a foolish man who didn’t value the things he had or the woman who loved him until he lost everything. Before Sherry could react to the shock—and possibilities—of that, he began to play another melody, lovely and soft, a song she knew. “Sing the words with me, querida,” he said lightly.
Singing was a favorite pastime for many people when they travelled, including the Bromleigh group, but on that night, Sherry felt unaccountably shy and awkward before she closed her eyes and made herself think only of the music and the sky and the night. She sang along with him, his deep baritone a counterpoint to her higher notes.
Several minutes later, she opened her eyes to the sound of applause and was stunned to see that a small group of campers from across the road had come over to listen to her.
It was the first of many, many nights when she sang while Rafe played and a crowd gathered to listen. Sometimes, when they were in a village or town, people expressed their appreciation with gifts of food and even money. In the months that followed, Rafe taught her to play the guitar, though she never played as well as he did, and he taught her Spanish, which she spoke almost as well as he did, then Italian, which neither of them spoke very well. At Sherry’s request, he kept an eye on the people her father gambled with, and her father’s winnings began to increase. He even began to talk to Patrick about becoming partners in all sorts of ventures that sounded awfully exciting, and terribly unlikely to Sheridan, but her father always listened with interest.
The only person who seemed to be less than pleased with Rafe’s presence was Dog Lies Sleeping, who regarded the other man with open disapproval and refused to do more than grunt at him, and that only in answer to a pertinent, direct question. To Sherry, he became rather withdrawn, and when she unhappily sought her father’s counsel on the subject, he said Dog Lies Sleeping probably felt bad because she didn’t spend as much time talking with him as she had done before Rafe joined them. After that, Sherry made it a point to seek the Indian’s advice and to ride beside him in the wagon more often than she rode beside Rafe.
Geniality and accord returned to their tiny cavalcade, and everything seemed perfect and permanent . . . until her papa decided to pay a visit to her mama’s spinster sister in Richmond, Virginia.
Sheridan had been excited about meeting her only other living relative, but she’d felt out of place in Aunt Cornelia’s small, stuffy house and terrified she was going to break one of the fragile knickknacks or soil the lacy handkerchief-looking things that seemed to be on every available surface. Despite all her precautions, Sherry had the awful feeling that her aunt did not like her very much at all and that she completely disapproved of everything Sherry said and did. That suspicion was confirmed by a mortifying conversation she overheard between her aunt and her father only two days after their arrival. Sherry had been sitting on the edge of a footstool, looking out at the city street, when muted voices in the next room made her turn in surprise and curiosity at the sound of her name.
She got up and wended her way around the furniture, then she pressed her ear to the door. Within moments, she realized that her suspicion was correct: Aunt Cornelia, who taught deportment at a school for young girls of wealthy families, was not at all pleased with Sheridan Bromleigh, and she was treating Patrick Bromleigh to a furious scold on that very subject: “You ought to be horsewhipped for the way you’ve reared that child,” Aunt Cornelia ranted in a scornful, disrespectful tone that Sheridan’s father would ordinarily never have tolerated from anyone, let alone endured in silence as he seemed to be doing. “She can’t read, and she can’t write, and when I asked her if she knew her prayers, she informed me she didn’t ‘hold with too much kneeling.’ Then she informed me—and I quote—‘The Good Lord probably doesn’t like to listen to Bible-banging preachers any more than he likes harlots who lead men away from the path of goodness and righteousness.’?”
“Now, Cornelia—” her father began, with a sound in his voice that almost sounded like stifled laughter. Cornelia Faraday obviously thought it sounded like laughter too, because she flew straight into what Rafe called a devil-rage.
“Don’t you try to get around me with your false charm, you—you scoundrel. You lured my sister into marrying you and traipsing halfway round the world with your fancy talk about a new life in America, and I’ll never forgive myself for not trying to stop her. Worse, I came along! But I will not stand by and keep silent this time, not when you’ve turned my sister’s only daughter into a—a joke! That girl, who is nearly old enough to be married, doesn’t act like a female; she doesn’t even look like a female. I doubt she knows she is one! She’s never worn anything but pants and boots, she’s as tanned as a savage, and she curses like a heathen! Her manners are deplorable, she’s outrageously outspoken, her hair is untamed, and she doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘feminine.’ She announced to me, as bold as brass, that she doesn’t care to marry right now, but she ‘fancies’ someone named Raphael Benavente and she’ll probably ask him to marry her someday. That young lady—and I use the term very loosely in Sheridan’s case—honestly intends to propose matrimony herself—and furthermore, the man of her choice is apparently some Spanish vagabond who, she proudly informed me, knows everything important—including how to cheat at cards! Well,” Aunt Cornelia finished in a rising tone of angry triumph, “I defy you to defend all that!”
Sherry held her breath and waited with some glee for her father to let loose an answering tirade in her defense at the hateful, sour-faced woman who’d wheedled her way into Sherry’s confidence with her questions and was using her honest answers against her.
“Sherry does not swear!” her father retorted a little lamely, but at least he sounded as if his temper was beginning to reach the dan
Aunt Cornelia was not as intimidated as others were when Patrick Bromleigh finally lost his temper. “Oh, yes she does!” she flung back. “She bumped her elbow this morning, and she swore IN TWO LANGUAGES! I heard her myself!”
“Really,” Patrick drawled nastily, “and how would you know what she was saying?”
“I know enough Latin to be able to translate ‘Dios Mio’! into a blasphemy.”
“That means ‘My God,’?” Patrick defended, but he sounded suddenly guilty and not very convincing as he added, “She was obviously having a go at some of that praying that you’re so worked up about her not doing!” Sherry bent down and put her eye to the keyhole. Her father was flushed, either with embarrassment or anger, and his fists were clenched at his sides, but Aunt Cornelia was standing right in front of him, as cold and unmoved as stone.
“That shows what little you know of praying or of your daughter,” Cornelia flung back contemptuously. “I shudder to think of the sorts of persons you’ve let her consort with, but I have a clear enough picture to know she’s been exposed to gambling and cursing, and that you’ve allowed liquor-drinking card cheats, like that Mr. Raphael, to see her dressed indecently. God alone knows the sort of evil thoughts she’s evoked in him and every other man who’s seen her with that red hair of hers flying all about like a wanton. And I haven’t even mentioned her other favorite companion—an Indian male who sleeps with dogs! A savage who—”
Sherry saw her father’s jaw clench with fury a moment before Aunt Cornelia mentioned Dog Lies Sleeping, and for a split second Sherry was half afraid—and half hopeful—that he was about to poke Aunt Cornelia right in the eye for saying such vile things. Instead, he spoke in a voice laced with biting scorn: “You’ve become a foul-minded, spiteful spinster, Cornelia—the sort who pretends that all men are bestial, and that they lust after every woman they see, when the truth is that you’re angry because no man ever lusted after you! And furthermore,” he finished, his Irish brogue thickening as his control and reason momentarily deserted him, “Sherry may be almost fourteen, but she’s as plain as a pikestaff and as flat-chested as you! In fact, Nelly, girl,” he’d finished with triumph, “poor Sherry’s showin’ signs of becomin’ the image of you. And there ain’t enough liquor on God’s earth to make a man lust after you, so I figure she’s safe enough.”