“Good evening, gentlemen. I’m Oni Matthews. I understand you’re looking for a guide into the Dakota Territories.”
Diah almost dropped his mug at the appearance of a lone Indian woman standing at their table. Strangely enough, though, her clothing appeared more civilized than the mud-crusted buckskins that covered most of the men inside the Golden Rose Saloon. Her long-sleeved burgundy shirt was belted around her small waist, and a long navy skirt flowed underneath it. It was an outfit that could have been worn by any respectable farmer’s wife back in Vicksburg. “You’re a guide? But you’re a woman.”
“And a half-breed,” Cager added with a hint of disgust in his voice.
She arched one dark brow. She was kind of pretty, in an odd way, with her coal black hair and high cheekbones. “I don’t know which of your comments offends me more. If you find something objectionable about me, then perhaps you can navigate your way through Dakota on your own.”
She turned to leave, but Diah stood and caught her hand. A shock traveled up his arm, making it difficult to breathe for a second. Surprise glowed in her amber eyes when they met his, as if she felt the same thing.
“I didn’t mean to offend you, Miss Matthews. Please have a seat.” He pulled out a chair for her.
Oni stared back at him with confusion on her face, but she sat and regained her composure. “So, you’ve decided to go buffalo hunting?”
Cager crossed his arms and studied her. “What makes you think you’re qualified to act as our guide?”
She laughed and leaned back in her chair with one arm draped over the back. “As you were so kind to point out, I’m half Lakota. I grew up in those hills and know them like the back of my hand. I know where to find food and water along the way, and if we run into some of my people, I can help you avoid what could turn into a nasty confrontation.”
“And the fact that you’re a woman?” Cager’s voice dripped in disdain.
“Lewis and Clark had no problems using Sacajawea as a guide.” She smirked. “Don’t tell me it’s a bruise to your pride to have a woman leading you?”
“No, it’s not that, it’s just…” Diah’s voice trailed off as he struggled to find the right words. He didn’t want to insult her by explaining his concerns over her being a member of the weaker sex, not to mention everything he’d heard about her people being little more than savages. But then, everything about her differed from most women he knew. She was blunt and direct, meeting their eyes instead of demurely glancing down. And, oddly enough, she was staring more at him than Cager. Usually women couldn’t keep their eyes off his brother.
Cager cleared his throat. “I think what my brother is trying to say is what would your husband or father think about you going out into the wilderness alone with us?”
She stiffened. “I don’t have a husband, and my father is no longer alive. If you’re worried about those trivial details, then perhaps you’re not as eager to go hunting as I was led to believe.”
“No, I’m just trying to make sure I don’t have to worry about any trouble from you while we’re out there.”
Oni threw back her head and laughed. “If you’re implying I’d try to seduce you, you’re dead wrong. And if either of you try anything on me, I can defend myself.” Her hand brushed the hilt of a small dagger that hung from her belt. “I’m a professional guide, Mr.…?”
“Reynolds,” Diah replied. “Jebediah Reynolds, and this is my brother, Micajah.”
She nodded, her eyes lingering on Diah. “So, do you have any more questions?”
“I just want to make sure I find the perfect buffalo.” Cager flashed his most charming grin at her. “I’m rather particular about what I’m hunting for.”
A smile played on her full lips, and she leaned forward so her breasts hovered over the edge of the table. “I know what you want. The White Buffalo.”
Diah’s eyes widened, earning a disapproving glance from his brother. How did she know? What bothered him more was that she’d lead them to something considered scared to her people. It was like a Christian trying to sell the Crown of Thorns to the highest bidder.
“What’s the White Buffalo?” Cager asked, wearing his best poker face.
“Don’t play innocent with me, Mr. Reynolds. I’m well aware of the moon cycles and the ancient legends. There’s only one reason why someone like you would be so determined to go buffalo hunting this late in the year.”
Diah hid his amusement behind his mug. It was refreshing to have a woman who saw straight through Cager’s deceptions instead of giggling like a half-witted child. He was beginning to like Oni.
His brother scowled. “Fine. Yes, I want to find it. Do you know where it is?”
“I have a general idea. But it’s going to cost you.”
Cager leaned forward, his jaw tight. “How much?”
“Eight hundred dollars.”
Diah plunked his mug down on the table. “That’s outrageous.”
Cager shifted in his chair. “I think we’ll take our chances without a guide if a half-breed woman like you is all this town can muster up.”
Diah almost swore he heard her teeth grinding.
She stood, and this time neither of them stopped her. “Good luck, then, gentleman. You’re going to need it. Dakota winters have been known to cause men like you to lose fingers and toes.”
As soon as she passed the doors, he turned to Cager. “Why did you have to piss her off? We’ve been in this town for two days and she’s the only guide we’ve been able to muster up.”
Cager’s eyes remained focused on the doorway as if he was expecting her to return. “She’s playing head games with us. Trust me, I know.”
“And what if she’s right? What if we end up wandering around out there in the snow until we freeze to death?” Diah preferred his fingers and toes pink and intact, not black and rotting off. Or becoming gator fodder, which is exactly what Jean-Baptiste would do to them if they failed.
“Eight hundred dollars is still a ridiculous amount to pay for a guide.”
“Not if we’re getting paid ten thousand for it.” Diah studied him for a few seconds. “I’m wondering if you aren’t a little perturbed that she didn’t fling herself at you like every other woman you’ve met.”
“What makes you think I want to tangle with her?”
“She’s a challenge.”
Cager’s laugh sounded hollow, letting Diah know how close to the mark he really was. “Watch and learn, little brother.”
Diah grinned. “I think you’ve finally found a woman who wants nothing to do with you.” But where does that leave me? he asked himself as he remembered what he felt when their hands touched.
He pushed those thoughts from his mind. Family trumped pride. It was time for him to play nice and smooth things over with the one person who could ensure they completed the mission. He pushed away from table. “Let me see if I can change her mind.”
His brother snorted. “Have fun, and if you need to me heal you after she sinks that knife into your gut, you know where to find me.”
Diah stepped out of the saloon and scanned the street for Oni. She was easy to find with the moonlight shining off her glossy hair like polished silver. He ran toward her. “Miss Matthews, please wait.”
She paused and turned around. “Changed your mind?”
He caught up with her and pulled her aside between two buildings. “Eight hundred, but only if we find it.”
“There are no guarantees in life, Mr. Reynolds.”
“Perhaps, but we’re not going to pay you that much unless we get what we want.”
“And what if we don’t find it?”
Diah dug his boot into the dirt. How would Cager handle this? “We can negotiate based on how helpful you’ve been.”
She narrowed her eyes. “I would like a deposit to procure my services, then.”
Cager was the one financing this trip, and Diah doubted his brother would give Oni a penny until he got what he wanted from her. “We’ll pay for your passage on the river and provide your supplies for the hunt. That sounds fair enough to me.”
She looked like she was about to tell him what he could do with his offer, so Diah reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the one thing of value he had left after the war. His father’s watch flashed in the dim light, still as shiny as the day it was made. A storm of emotions whirled inside him as he extended it to her. “Miss Matthews, would you consider this a suitable deposit?”
“My father’s, actually.” He opened her hand and laid it into her outstretched palm. Guilt nagged at him while he closed her fingers around it. “It’s pure gold. I’m sure you’ll be able to fetch a good price for it. In return, you’ll agree to meet us at the docks in the morning.”
She stared at him with her lips parted. “You’re willing to part with a family heirloom in order to hire me as a guide?” She cocked her head and knitted her brows together. “What’s really going on here?”
“I’d prefer not to go into the details.” He released her hand and took a step back. Why am I so determined not to let her go? “My brother and I are honest men. Our word is as good as any written contract, I promise you.”
The angle of her shoulders dropped, and her face relaxed. “Is that so?”
Oni studied his face as if she was trying to assess his credibility. Finally she shoved the watch back into his hand. “You sound like a decent man, Mr. Reynolds, unlike your brother, so let me give you a piece of friendly advice. Stay away from the White Buffalo.”