Johanna Lindsey

Savage Thunder

Chapter One

Wyoming Territory, 1878

The Callan Ranch was silent that summer day except for the ominous crack of a whip. More than a half-dozen men were gathered in the grass-patched front yard of the ranch house, but not one made a sound as they watched Ramsay Pratt wield the whip with the expertise he was known for. An ex-bullwhacker, as stock drivers were frequently called, Pratt loved to show off his skills. He could knock the revolver out of a gunman's hand with the flick of his wrist, or a fly off the rear end of a horse without touching the hide. Where other men carried guns on their hips Pratt carried a twelve-foot-long bullwhip coiled on his. But this demonstration today was a mite different from his usual tricks. This one was stripping the flesh off a man's back.

Ramsay did it at Walter Callan's behest, but he derived a good deal of pleasure from it, for it wasn't the first time he had whipped a man to death, or found that he enjoyed doing it, though no one, here in Wyoming knew that. He didn't have it easy the way gun-men did. If they wanted to kill a man, they could pick a fight that would be over in a matter of seconds, then claim self-defense after the smoke cleared. But with Ramsay's choice of weapons, he had to disarm a man first, then proceed to whip the life out of him. Not too many people bought self-defense in that case. But in this case, he was following the boss's orders, and the victim was a no-account half-breed anyway, so no one would care.

He wasn't using his bullwhip, which could take a half-inch chunk of flesh with each stroke. That would end the entertainment too soon. Callan had suggested a shorter, thinner horsewhip, still capable of making mincemeat out of a man's back, but taking much longer to do it. Ramsay was all for that. He could drag this out for a good hour or more before his arm got tired.

If Callan weren't so mad, he would probably have just had the Injun shot. But he wanted him to suffer, to scream some before he died, and Ramsay meant to oblige. So far he was just playing with the victim, using the same cracking technique he used with the bullwhip, slicing an inch here, an inch there, not re-ally doing much damage but making each little cut felt.

The Injun hadn't made a noise yet, not even a sharp indrawn breath. He would, though, when Ramsay started slashing instead of flicking. But there was no hurry — unless Callan got bored and called it off.

That wasn't likely to happen, not as furious as the boss was. Ramsay knew how he'd feel if he just found out the man courting his only daughter was a damn breed. All these months he'd been fooled, and Jenny Callan too, from the look of her when her father confronted her with it. She'd turned right pale and sick-looking, and she stood on the porch now with her father, looking just as mad as he was.

It was a damn shame, for she was a real pretty gal. But who'd want her now after they heard who she'd kept company with, let touch her, and it was anyone's guess what else he'd done to her. She'd been deceived just as her father had, but who could have guessed that the Summerses' close friend was half Injun? He dressed like a white, spoke like a white, wore his hair shorter than most whites, carried a gun on his hip. It was just plain hard to tell what he was by the look of him, for the only things Injun-like about him were the straightness of his black hair and the darkness of his skin, which, truth to tell, wasn't much darker than that of any other man who rode the range.

The Callans still wouldn't have known if Long Jaw Durant hadn't been there to tell. Durant had been fired from the Rocky Valley Ranch and had only signed on the Callan spread yesterday. He had been in the barn when Colt Thunder, as the breed was calling himself, had ridden in on that big-boned Appaloosa, a son of Mrs. Summers' prize stallion. Naturally Durant was curious enough to ask one of the men what Thunder was doing there, and when told he'd been sniffing 'round Jenny Callan's skirts these past three months, he couldn't believe it. He knew Colt from his previous employment as being a close friend of the boss, Chase Summers, as well as his wife, Jessica. He also knew him to be a half-breed who until three years ago had been a full-fledged Cheyenne warrior, though that knowledge hadn't gone much farther than the Rocky Valley, apparently — until today.

Durant had wasted little time in finding his new boss and apprising him of this news. Maybe if he hadn't done it in front of three other hands, Callan would have handled it differently. But with his men aware of his daughter's shame, there was no way in hell he could let the breed live. He had gathered up the rest of his men, and when Colt Thunder stepped out on the porch, having collected young Jenny for an afternoon picnic, he was facing a half-dozen nervous revolvers trained on his belly, enough firepower to keep his hand away from his own gun, which he was quickly relieved of.

He was a tall man, taller than any of the men surrounding him. Those who had seen him come and go over these past months had never had reason to be wary of him, though, for he smiled often, laughed often, gave every indication of being a man of easy temperament — until now. Now there was little doubt that he had been raised by the Northern Cheyenne, those same Cheyenne who had joined with the Sioux to massacre Lieutenant Colonel Custer and his battalion of two hundred men just two years ago in the valley of the Little Bighorn up in Montana Territory. Colt Thunder, in the blink of an eye, became a Cheyenne brave, lethal, dangerous, the savage wildness of the Injun unleashed, striking fear into the hearts of civilized man.

He did not go down easily once he realized that shooting him was not their intention. It took seven men to get him tied to the hitching post in front of the house, and of those seven, not one came away from the scuffle unscathed. Bruises and bloody noses tamped down any qualms the men might have felt when Walter Callan ordered Ramsay to fetch a horse-whip so the breed would die slow. The Injun hadn't even flinched at that order. He still hadn't, even though his shirt was now torn and soaking up blood from the many small cuts Ramsay had inflicted.

He was still standing, his hips against the five-foot-long hitching rail his only support, his arms stretched cut *"> either end of it. There was room toVr ing him sagging to his knees, and he would go down eventu-ally, but right now he stood straight and tall, his head defiantly erect, only the sure grip of his fingers curled around the rail an indication of pain — or anger.

It was that posture, so damn proud, that reminded Ramsay this wasn't like those other times his whip had bitten into human flesh. The two Mexicans he had done the same to down in Texas had crumbled after only three or four licks. That old prospector Ramsay had relieved of his gold and his life in Col-orado had started screaming even before the first stroke of the lash. But this was an Injun, or at least he'd been raised like one; hadn't Ramsay heard somewhere about the Northern Plains Injuns putting them-selves through some kind of self-torture ceremony? He'd wager the breed had a couple of scars on his chest or back to prove it, and that riled him. It meant it would be a long while and a lot of hard work to get any screams out of this one. It was time to get serious.

The first true stroke of the whip was like a red-hot iron laid across the breed's back, branding him, the only difference the absence of the stink of burning flesh. Colt Thunder didn't blink, nor would he as long as Jenny Callan was standing up on that porch watch-ing him. He kept his eyes locked to hers. They were blue like his own, though much darker, like that sap-phire ring Jessie was fond of wearing. Jessie?

God, she was going to be angry about this, but then she had always been protective of him, especially since he showed up on her doorstep three years ago and she took it upon herself to turn him into a white man. She'd even had him believing it could work. He should have known better.

Think of her. no, he could only envision Jessie crying when she saw what was left of his body after they were done with him. Jenny — he had to concen-trate on her.

Damn, how many strokes was that now? Six? Seven?

Jenny, beautiful, blond, sweet as Jessie's home-made candy. Her father had settled in Wyoming only last year, after the Indian wars were over, the beaten Sioux and Cheyenne confined to reservations. Colt had been in Chicago with Jessie and Chase during the worst of the war, Jessie conspiring to keep the news from him, thinking he would want to go back and fight with his people. He wouldn't have. His mother, sister, and younger brother were already dead, found and killed by a couple of gold prospectors heading for the Black Hills just two months after he had left the tribe in '75. The area had been swarming with pros-pectors ever since gold was discovered there in '74.

It was the start of the end, that gold in the heart of Indian territory. The Indians had always known it was there, but once the whites did, you couldn't keep them out. And even though they were breaking the treaty by being there, the army finally came in to protect them, and so the last great Indian victory at Little Bighorn, but then the end.

Colt's mother, Wide River Woman, had seen it coming. That was why she had instigated the fight between him and his stepfather, Runs With the Wolf, pretty much forcing Colt into leaving the tribe. She would have sent his sister with him if Little Gray Bird Woman hadn't already married.