Authors: K. A. Stewart
“No. It is a gift in Father's line. His children, their children, and so on. Many of them have grown to be great medicine men and women of our people.”
Caleb glanced at the door and back. “That manÂ .Â .Â . Crying Elk? He's your father?” He would have guessed grandfather at the very least, and maybe a couple of greats to go along with it.
Falcon Woman nodded. “I am one of the youngest of his children. I have two sisters who are younger still. There are many who are older. Like Tall Bear. The man you fought at the village.”
“He is your brother.”
She nodded with a small smile.
“I hope I didn't hurt him. I think I lost track of what happened that night.”
“He was not harmed. Only shamed. He should not have asked the fire for aid. The fire is always hungry, and in the dry times, it can devour too much.” She wrung a cloth out in a bowl of water, beginning to bathe some of the plaster off his chest. “You did well to contain it. I do not think Tall Bear himself could have done that. If Father had been forced to step in, Tall Bear would have been twice shamed, so it was a doubly good thing you did.”
“Glad I could help,” he muttered, watching her hands move over him with clinical detachment. “SoÂ .Â .Â . my dreams. If you're not supposed to do it, why are you bothering me?”
Her dark skin went ruddy in her embarrassment. “I wanted to see what kind of man you were. After the day in the mountainsÂ .Â .Â . You could have harmed me easily, and yet you protected yourself and did not attack. I wished to know why.”
“And what did you learn?”
Instead of answering him, she lifted his head again. “Look at your chest.”
It took some doing to crane his neck and see, all trussed up as he was, but where she indicated was a deep bruise in the area of his heart. “Damn. I must have landed on a rock.”
She shook her head, her braids falling around her face. “These injuries were from the great blue fire.” She touched his poultice-covered forearms, his forehead, traced her fingers over the ribs on his right side. “Because your body and spirit are one, I can heal your spirit in this place, and your body. But thisÂ .Â .Â .” She laid her warm palm flat over the bruised place, and still she could not cover it all. It was an expansive wound. “This is older, and a wound of the spirit alone. You fought a great battle. I saw it in your dreams. This is something only you could heal. Perhaps later you can ask Father to show you how. He has guided many wounded warriors through such a healing.”
“I don't understand any of this. You know that, right? This is allÂ .Â .Â . myth to me. Legend.”
“And yet it is life to us.” She smiled softly. “I have heard of the great lakes-with-no-shores and the large canoes belching blue fire that cross them bearing hundreds of people. That is myth to me, and life to you.”
“Fair enough.” His shoulders ached, stretched out as they were, but at least it was better than the screaming pain of before. “Can you untie me? Or at least take this necklace off me?”
She shook her head. “I cannot.”
“I promise, I won't hurt you.”
“I know you will not hurt me. You are the Good Man.” She did tuck a small pile of soft tanned hides under his head so he could rest more comfortably. “But as you are both flesh and spirit, so I can affect you here. The ropes that bind you, they are part of the other world, and in this place I cannot touch them.”
“SoÂ .Â .Â . I'll wake up back on the prairie, still tied up like a snared rabbit?”
“Yes. But if Coyote saw fit to tell Father about your need for aid, he may also see to your freedom. He is like that.” She rose once again, returning to her pile of belongings on the far side of the lodge.
“I saw a coyote when I was out there. And a buffalo, and a deer and other things. Were they real or did I dream them?”
“Yes.” At first, he thought she was going to leave him with that enigmatic answer, but she returned to his side with a bowl of hot broth and went on. “When I took you to see the mountain spirit, I gave you the sight to see. Do you remember?”
He nodded as best he could. “You touched my face.”
“The sight will linger for a time, I think. It is possible that you saw Buffalo, and Deer, and Coyote. It is also possible that they were simply animals. A warrior's visions are his own on his quest.”
He sipped the broth with her help, his stomach growling hungrily even as the salt in it made him crave more water. “I didn't go on a vision quest. I was left out there to die.”
“Then perhaps the vision quest found you. Though I do not know how you could have a spirit guide before you had your vision. As Father said, perhaps it is because you are a white man and your spirit guides are different. You must be a very powerful medicine man among your people.”
That thought made him chuckle, though he tried to keep the bitterness out of his voice. “No, I'm not. Not anymore.”
“Then you are a puzzle, Good Man. Drink. It will nourish you.”
He allowed her to feed him in silence for a long moment, his mind too rattled to even form a logical question. Perhaps he was still hallucinating, but he couldn't recall any before that had been so very real. Every detail was crystal clear in his vision, from the quillwork on her dress to the tiny feather braided into her hair behind her right ear. The firelight cast a warm glow around, and it was reflected in her ebony tresses until they nearly shimmered with flame themselves. When she leaned over him, he could smell the herbs she had used to wash, see the pulse fluttering like a hummingbird's wings in the hollow of her throat.
He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. He had not been with a woman in some time, to be sure, but this was not the time or place to be thinking of it.
A wet cloth stroked his forehead as she wiped away the poultice there, too. He could feel the water trickling through his short hair and down his neck. It tickled, and he squirmed a bit.
She giggled at him, a trilling laugh made of sunlight. “I am sorry. This is difficult with you tied so.”
He opened his eyes to find her bent over him, her dark eyes alight with merriment. He couldn't help but smile in return. “It's all right. If I get out of this, it will be an interesting story to tell someday.”
Falcon Woman nodded, patting his face with a dry cloth. “And we will tell it often. You will be known among the People. When Father meets with the other medicine men here, he will speak of the Good Man, and they will know that not all white men are evil.”
“We're not, you know. There is good and bad in all of us. I'm sure it's the same with your people.”
She nodded, resting her hands in her lap finally. “Even within the same person, yes. It is a matter of which side is stronger, I think.” She placed one delicate hand on his chest again, over the bruise. “Your good side fights hard and wins. But I think you make the struggle harder than it must be.”
“You know all that just from walking through my dreams?”
“I knew that the first time I looked into your eyes. The dreams only told me why.” With her other hand, she drew something from a pouch at her side and cast it into the fire. Fragrant smoke rose again in pale blue billows, and a sweet scent drifted to fill the lodge.
Caleb's eyelids grew heavy almost immediately. “WhatÂ .Â .Â .Â ?”
“You must rest, Good Man. The road Father sees for you is not an easy one, and you need to gather your strength.” She stroked her hand down his scarred cheek lightly, and her humming filled his ears once more.
He tried to fight it, he truly did. But the smoke whispered to him to sleep, and her song spoke of safety, and it became harder and harder to keep his eyes open. “Falcon?”
“My nameÂ .Â .Â . it's Caleb.”
“Rest now, Caleb Good Man. I will watch over you until you wake.”
It was not the morning sunlight that woke him so much as the interruption of that light as the shadow of something large loomed over his face.
Caleb blinked his eyes open to find himself staring up a very long, very furry face, one deep brown eye observing him curiously. The nose, no more than an inch from his own, breathed warm, grainy breath into his face, snuffling at him with interest.
“Gah!” His startled yell resulted in wrenching his shoulders against his bonds, and the painted horse danced away nervously. “Christ!”
His time spent in the Indian teepee had surely been a dream or fevered hallucination. There was no flattened grass, no tracks, no smoldering fire, nothing to show that anyone had ever been there.
The Place BetweenÂ .Â .Â .
Once his heart stopped thundering in his ears and he lay still, the inquisitive horse came back, nosing his hair and chest with strong nudges, blowing horsy breath all over him. It examined him in some uncomfortably personal places, and he tensed, knowing full well he was unable to defend himself if the animal got cranky. “Is there something I can do for you?”
The horse's ears flicked once, perking at the sound of his voice. The animal was colored in splashy brown and white spots, the white half of its face sporting a glassy blue eye in contrast to the gentle brown eye on the darker side. Someone had painted dark blue handprints on its flanks. He realized the creature was also wearing a crude bridle, the reins knotted loosely over the animal's withers. It obviously belonged to someone. Were they missing their mount?
It started nibbling at the grass, finding the shoots beneath Caleb's left arm particularly tantalizing. Caleb kept an eye on those sharp-looking hooves, waiting for one of them to lash out and end his misery. Everyone knew how erratic horses could be; that's why all civilized folk rode transports.
Something tugged at his wrist, and he realized the horse was nibbling at the rope. He froze, trying to stop even his pulse as those large white teeth snipped closer and closer to his bare skin. “Good umÂ .Â .Â . boy? Just don't bite me.Â .Â .Â .”
Unfortunately, the horse lost interest before it severed the rope completely, and it wandered a few yards away to look for greener grasses among the dry stalks. Caleb glared at the frayed bond for a few moments, tugging to see if he could part it any further. The remaining strands seemed determined to hold.
He rested his head against the hard soil for a few moments, only half noticing that it wasn't pounding like a brass band anymore. In fact, though the skin on his forearms was a rather cheerful shade of pink, the blisters were gone, and it felt like nothing more than a mild sunburn.
“Until I roast out here all day again.” The horse seemed to be attracted to his voice, and came back over to see just what he had to say on the subject. “You're a friendly sort, at least. Any chance you want to finish dining on that rope? I promise I'll get you something nice.” What the hell did horses like, anyway? He had a vague memory of sugar cubes, but that could have been just a child's story from long ago.
The horse snorted and turned its attentionâ
attention, Caleb could clearly see from this angleâto its grazing, again finding Caleb inconveniently in its way. The animal was strong, and had no qualms about shoving the prone Peacemaker this way and that to get at the choicest tidbits.
Only when the animal wandered away yet againâthough never farther than a few yardsâdid Caleb notice that his actions had dislodged the nullstone amulet from his chest. Though it was still looped around his neck on a thin chain, the heavy medallion had slipped back off his shoulders, nestling in the grass right next to his ear.
Caleb hardly dared to breathe. So long as the stone wasn't actually touching his skin, he had a chance.
It should have coursed through his veins like living fire, the substance of life itself burning and enticing all at once. Instead, his power was sluggish, a reluctant trickle of thick sludge. It was a supreme effort of will to draw on that murky core, forcing what little he could out the length of his arm toward the frayed rope. It almost oozed, cold and lifeless, chilling him despite the day's heat already brewing.
He let the power pool in his palm, the vibrant blue energy now clouded and almost black. He'd have one shot, and then he'd have to wait until more of the nullstone cleared from his body before he could gather enough strength to try again. That could take hours that he didn't have.
With his staff, he could have taken even the sluggish remnants of his energy and focused them into a narrow blade, a tiny point of controlled force to part the strands of the rope. Without it, he was left with brute force. He almost took comfort in that. It had always been where he excelled.
“Wish me luck,” he told the horse, and squeezed his fist closed.
There was no boom, no crack of released power. It came out instead as a sick squelch, superheated energy dripping between his fingers to sizzle in the dry grasses, sending up warning tendrils of smoke. “Come onÂ .Â .Â .” A twist of his wrist, a tilt of the hand, anything to direct those dribbles onto the rope itself.
When it finally snapped in two, his arm whipped upward by reflex, the last of his power searing down his own arm before he could think to draw it back in. “Yes!” The horse started and stamped at Caleb's joyous celebration, and eyed the beginnings of the prairie fire warily.
With his newly freed hand, Caleb beat out the tiny flickers of flame before they could turn into something monstrous. His next act was to yank the amulet from his neck and fling it as far as his prone position would allow.
The horse whickered in concern at the violent movements, but was apparently too intrigued to run away. Its ears flicked back and forth, swiveling almost full circle as it watched the strange human put on a little show.
Though it took some rather painful stretching, and he got rope fibers embedded deep under his fingernails, Caleb managed to work his other arm free the old-fashioned way. It was only a few minutes more before he had his legs free.
He stood and immediately swayed on his feet, his body adjusting to being upright for the first time in almost a full day. A reaching hand found the horse's warm flank under his palm, and he gladly took the support. “Thanks.”
The horse craned its neck to look at him, snuffling softly with what Caleb took to be curious noises. “Yes, I'm the crazy person talking to a horse. You should have seen me last night. I was talking to an imaginary coyote.”
Slowly, the world righted itself. The morning sun was just off the horizon, casting the prairie in a brilliant yellow glare that promised to bake it dry and hard for the hundredth day in a row. And as Caleb stared around the flat grassland, he realized he had no idea where he was.
“I don't suppose you know the way back to Hope, do you?” The horse flicked its ears, but didn't say anything. “Didn't think so.”
For good measure, he kicked some dirt over the nullstone amulet, grinding it into the soil with his boot heel. It was time to reach for Ernst.
He was still hampered by the residual null effects, but somewhere, deep down beneath the thick cotton batting in his head, he could feel the little jackalope far in the distance. His shoulders sagged in relief. “ErnstÂ .Â .Â .” It took several tries, but he finally managed to feed a small pulse into that connection. Hopefully, it was enough to get his familiar's attention.
Almost immediately, there was a pop as the air was displaced to make room for one frantic little familiar. “Caleb! Thank everything!” Quivering with excitement, he gathered himself to leap into the man's arms, but Caleb quickly stepped back.
“Don't! I'm all over nulled. Don't touch me.” The chalky stone was debilitating to any human with a shred of power. It was fatal to familiars who were nearly made of magic.
Ernst's ears perked up, and his furry nose wrinkled as he got a good whiff. “Eugh, you reek of it! What did you do, roll in it?” He noticed the horse for the first time, the larger animal giving back the same startled look. “And since when did you go native?”
“IÂ .Â .Â . actually don't know where the horse came from.” He had his suspicions, though. It looked awfully like the one Falcon Woman was riding the day he saw her at the Anderson place. “And you can thank Warner for the nullstone.”
“He didn't!” The little rabbit-ish creature puffed up to twice his size. “Oooh! I'll scratch his eyes out! I'll put fleas in his sheets! I'llÂ .Â .Â . I don't know what I'll do, but it will be bad, I tell you!” He hopped around in furious circles until he landed on the buried amulet, at which point he leapt sky-high with a pained yelp. “Ow!”
“Be careful, Ernst!” With thorough reluctance, Caleb retrieved the medallion, careful to touch only the lead casing. “First things first, which way is Hope?”
“Almost due south. You're practically in the Wyoming territory, you're so far north.”
Caleb cursed softly. “Even if I had a transport, I'd have to ride the better part of the day before I got back there. On footÂ .Â .Â .”
“WellÂ .Â .Â . you have the horse.Â .Â .Â .” Caleb raised a brow at Ernst, who shrugged his little shoulders. “What? Indians ride them. And it has a bridle; surely it's trained.”
“Regardless of how, I have to get back there. Miss Sinclair isn't safe, especially since Warner thinks I died out here.” He eyed the horse, getting a quizzical look in return. The animal seemed to know that it was about to be accosted.
“There was some hubbub starting in town when I blinked out, but I didn't get to see what was going on. You want me to go back? Since I can't ride with you anyway.”
Caleb nodded. “Yeah, see if it's something serious, and help out if you can. Hey, Ernst?” He caught the jackalope in mid-blink, and the animal quickly faded back to something resembling solidity. “How's Hector?”
Ernst drew himself up proudly. “He's awake, and giving Sven and Jimmy tips on repairing the telegraph.”
“Good. Get going, I don't want anyone to see me make an ass of myself with this horse.”
“Aye-aye, captain.” And he was gone, at least physically. Caleb could still feel him, distant but there, and he took comfort in it.
“At least if I break my neck, someone will know to come looking for me.”
The horse snorted its agreement.
The first dilemma was the lack of a saddle. All transports and most haulers had the stirrups built in, making mounting quite easy. The horse had no such convenient handles and steps, and Caleb walked around it a few times trying to judge the best way to get on.
Finally, he grabbed a handful of the animal's mane. “Don't tell anyone about this, all right?”
The first attempt to throw his leg over was less than graceful, but at least he didn't wind up on his rump. The horse was less impressed, shying and snorting for a few moments before Caleb could get close to it again.
On the second try, he made it aboard, where he clung to the animal's neck precariously. How different it was to be atop something with nothing to hang on to. And was a transport this high up?
The horse decided that the strange man riding him was going to offer no guidance, and lowered its head to graze again, nearly dumping Caleb off headfirst.
“Whoa! Easy there!”
He carefully let go of his hold on the mane and took up the reins. That would allow him to steer, of course, but how did he make the thing go? There were no pedals to step on, no levers to kick forward.
He must have been sitting uncomfortably for the horse, because the big animal gave a shudder, every inch of its sensitive skin shaking at once. Caleb grabbed for the mane again and clung tightly with his knees.
The horse's head came up suddenly, and it lurched forward so abruptly that Caleb was almost unseated yet again. They were off across the prairie before he even knew what had happened, the Peacemaker bouncing and clinging to the animal in a most undignified manner.
Some very painful moments passed while he got himself righted again, and it was quickly apparent that knee pressure was going to be a guiding force with the animal. Once they both understood that, Caleb got it pointed south, and they galloped toward Hope, following his connection to Ernst.
Riding a horse was very different from riding a transport. Caleb adapted quickly as he found his own body moving in rhythm with the animal's. He could feel the horse's lungs heave like bellows between his legs and see the pulse of the animal's great heart in its arched neck. He thought his own heart might have matched that beat, until they were almost one creature.
Bare-chested as he was, he was reminded of the dream Falcon Woman had given him, of the Indian brave riding across the prairie to find his village decimated. It sent a shiver of foreboding down his back, and he leaned forward more, urging the horse to run faster. Suddenly, he needed to reach Hope.
The sun was well past its zenith by the time he arrived in the small town, and both he and the horse were soaked in sweat. When he reached the saloon, a crowd had gathered, pressing close and calling out until he couldn't tell one voice from another.
Holding the reins, he slid off the horse's back and tried to make sense of the clamor.
“Oh, thank God you're back.Â .Â .Â .”
“You have to do something.”
Caleb tried to shout over the din but was getting nowhere. The horse had better luck. Pressed on all sides by shouting humans, it suddenly reared up on its hind legs, lashing out with its sharp hooves. That effectively cleared an awed circle around the beleaguered Peacemaker.
Caleb stroked the horse's sweaty neck, hoping to sooth the agitated animal. “One at a time, please. What is going on?”
One of the women stepped forward, her hands clutching reflexively at her skirts. “He won't let the children leave. They tried to go get them, and men with guns turned them away at the gate!”