Authors: K. A. Stewart
“You sure know how to make friends, Caleb.” Ernst reclaimed his seat on the bar, his brown fur bristling with static electricity and tiny sparks emitting from the tips of his antlers.
“What can I say? It's a talent.” Grimly, he watched the door, half expecting Higgins and Schmidt to return. They did not. “I think we'll spend the evening down here with Teddy, Ernst. Make sure things stay calm.”
Abel Warner and his men did not make their usual appearance at Teddy's saloon that night. Caleb, who sat up until the last patron had left, was certain the conversations had been livelier, the faces more relaxed without the rancher and his squad of armed thugs. It made him feel a bit more confident in his gut impression of Warner. Ernst wasn't the only one who was wary around the rancher, no matter what pleasant face the locals put on. If he had to guess, he'd say they felt beholden to the wealthy landowner, and such a feeling of debt sat heavily.
Still, his unease followed him into his dreams that night, not an uncommon occurrence.
It was impossible to tell whether it was mist swirling around his feet or the smoke from the bellowing cannons and their explosive shells. A high whine announced the arrival of another round, and he gathered himself, summoning the power of the two men on either side of him, yanking it from them when they lacked the strength to give it willingly. Through the power of his will alone, he summoned a shield, or more precisely, a large net. The cannonball hit with all the force of the men who had propelled it here, and he took that, too, drank it in. Using its own momentum, he guided the plummeting projectile into a graceful arc, slinging it around his position until it was pointed back at its senders. All power was subject to the laws of inertia, the conservation of energy. A person with the proper strength could simply capture the existing force, turn it back on itself. With a heave that left him staggered and both men with him drained, Caleb launched the cannonball back at its originators. He lost sight as it disappeared somewhere over the chaotic battlefield, trailing blue arcane energies behind it.
“Captain! They're coming around the left flank!” someone yelled, and Caleb turned, yanking the corporal on his right up by the scruff of his coat. The man was barely conscious, his power thready and weak. It wasn't enough.
He felt the blast coming, felt the concussion of the cannonball's launch through the soles of his feet. And as in so many nightmares, he felt it descending on them, and he could do nothing. There was no power to draw on but his own; his aides were drained or possibly scoured. And one man alone could not stop an augmented blast.
In his dream, he tried to push the corporal ahead of him, tried to get the man to run. In reality, the blast had come without warning, the cannon before them exploding into jagged pieces of red-hot shrapnel. The noise was deafening for all of one heartbeat; then he could hear nothing, his eardrums shattered by the force. Something white-hot scored his face as he fell, agony spearing through his right eye. His head bounced as it hit the ground, and his vision grew red with blood.
In the dream, he lay there for hours, perfectly aware and awake, though in reality he knew that he'd been unconscious for the duration. Men trampled his body without thought as they retreated from the advancing Confederate forces. Blood splattered across his skin, starting out hot and quickly cooling to something thick and sticky. A fly crawled across the staring, unseeing eyes of the dead corporal next to him.
Somewhere amid the thump of silent cannon fire, through the haze of smoke and fog, someone was watching him. No matter how he tried, he could not force his eyes to move, could not raise his head, but he felt them nearby.
Something rested against his back, a light, gentle touch through the blood-soaked wool of his uniform.
Caleb came awake with a gasp, blinking in the light of new dawn, clutching the sweat-soaked sheets like a lifeline.
“Agent Marcus?” The knock came at his door again, and he realized he must have been hearing it for some time. “Agent Marcus, are you awake?”
“IÂ .Â .Â . gah, yes, I'm awake! I'll be right out!” He ran a hand over his face, finding it covered in clammy sweat. Damn the dreams. Was he sentenced to relive the war every single night? “JustÂ .Â .Â . let me get dressed,” he mumbled as he climbed from the bed.
Ernst sat in the window watching him silently.
“Not a word, Ernst.”
“I didn't say anything.” His deep brown gaze returned to the world outside. “Warner is in town.”
Caleb frowned as he struggled into his pants. “This early? What the hell's he want?”
“I think that's why they're waking you.”
More or less dressed, with his gun strapped on and his staff at his side, Caleb opened the door. Ellen Sinclair and Jimmy waited in the hallway. Ellen looked relieved to have finally wakened him. “You have to stop him. He's going to kill them.”
“Stop.” Caleb held up a hand. “Who's going to kill who?”
“Mr. Warner,” Jimmy piped up. “I heard him say they found the reds that raided Mr. Anderson's place, and they were going to go take care of it.”
Caleb cursed under his breath, earning a raised brow from the prim schoolteacher. “Ernst! Come on!”
Warner had managed to assemble quite a mob by the time Caleb got mounted up on his transport and met them on the outskirts of town. There were at least twenty of Warner's own men there, including the ever-silent Schmidt and a good ten or fifteen of the townsfolk, and they were armed with everything from pistols to rifles to a few staves that were less powerful replicas of Caleb's own. This was not meant to be a peaceful excursion.
“Mr. Warner!” Caleb pulled his transport to a halt in front of the throng. “Might I remind you that the law frowns on vigilante justice?”
Scowling, the rancher reined his transport up short. “Then I suggest you accompany us, Peacemaker. Because justice will be done this day whether you like it or not.”
With angry shouts of encouragement, the mob kicked their mounts into motion and rode around Caleb with little regard. Cursing, Caleb wheeled to follow them.
The hauler was not built for speed, and the lighter transports quickly pulled ahead, leaving Caleb to follow as best he could. They were headed west, toward the mountains again, but north of the track that had taken them to Anderson's homestead.
But the raiding party, at least the hauler, went south.
“Ernst, can you get ahead of them, see where they're going?”
The familiar was clinging tenaciously to the back of the hauler with all four paws. “Not without Warner knowing I'm there. He's cast a net, watching for me.”
“He did what?” Caleb relaxed his senses as much as he could, letting his eyes see into the arcane spectrum. He expected to see pulses, flashes as Warner's power went seeking outward from the man, but instead he saw a shimmer in the air, a heat wave that followed along in a steady rolling motion.
Sweet Lord, to control that much power on a moving transportÂ .Â .Â .
He wasn't sure he himself could have done it, and the thought disturbed him. “Just means he's going to do something he doesn't want me to see.”
Well before they entered the foothills, Caleb found the rest of the transports halted in the tall grass. The men had obviously gone forward on foot. He dismounted, gathering his staff and freeing his gun from its holster. “Stay close to me, Ernst. I need your eyes.” Though the jackalope vanished the moment his furry feet touched the ground, Caleb could still feel him near.
Their trail through the dry and brittle prairie flora was not hard to follow. Creeping over a slight rise, Caleb found the posse spread at the top of the next, clearly eyeing something down the other side. Warner and Schmidt held center stage, the rancher giving very quiet instructions to his hired gun. Caleb crept up to Warner's left, shouldering aside another man to take his place, lying flat on his stomach.
Below them, a small teepee had been erected, barely more than a crude framework of hides over branches. It was nothing like the well-constructed dwellings Caleb had seen in his briefings. A small fire burned in an area carefully cleared of dry grass, and a lone rabbit roasted on a stick over it. Two horses stood tethered a few yards away, grazing peacefully. Belatedly, Caleb noticed that Warner had approached from downwind to avoid spooking the animals.
In front of the haphazard shelter, a small child sat playing with a doll. If the girl was more than three years old, Caleb would eat his hat. Her dark braids framed a cherubic face, but there were shadows beneath her eyes. She was hungry, perhaps. The rabbit must have been a precious treat.
One of the horses stamped and snorted, and Caleb saw another child slip from between the two beasts, coming to join his sister. The lad was around nine, though if they had been hungry long, he could have simply been small. Bared to the waist like he was, his ribs were painfully visible. The boy checked the rabbit, turning it, then called out in a language Caleb did not understand.
A woman emerged from the teepee, tying a leather thong into her dark hair. She smiled fondly at the boy, mussing his hair, then picked up the little girl, chattering at her in their musical language.
were the raiders of Anderson's homestead? A half-starved mother and two young children? Caleb looked at Warner to find the rancher's eyes fixed on the scene below.
“Are you out of your mind? They can't possibly be the ones who raided the homestead,” Caleb hissed softly. The little family went about readying their meal, oblivious to their danger. “Don't you think, if they had two cows, they'd be eating them instead of that scrawny rabbit?”
Warner turned to look at the Peacemaker, his dark eyes hard and cold. “Even if they aren't, that boy will someday grow up to scalp good and decent white folk. Better to get them now.”
So. Those were the rancher's true colors. Caleb felt faintly ill.
On Warner's other side, Schmidt was already taking aim down the long barrel of his buffalo rifle, a tiny glimmer of blue energy fizzing at the primer.
Abruptly, the tiny flicker of awareness that was Caleb's connection to Ernst vanished from his side and reappeared down below. Unseen, the familiar prowled between the horses.
The Indian woman bent to set her daughter on the ground, and Schmidt's finger tightened on the trigger slowly. Silently, Caleb willed her not to stand up, to stay down, but of course she could not hear him.
Ernst, whatever you're going to do, make it quick.
One of the horses let out a piercing scream, tossing its head and kicking its hind legs frantically. The other animal caught the first one's panic, dancing at the end of its lead, the whites of its eyes showing as they rolled.
The mother and son both jerked their heads upright, looking for the danger for only a split second before the boy grabbed his mother's handÂ .Â .Â . and the entire family disappeared. Nothing remained but the spooked horses and one rapidly charring rabbit.
“Damn you!” Warner grabbed Caleb's shirt as they both got to their feet. “Just what the hell do you think you're doing?”
Caleb gripped Warner's wrist tightly but made no aggressive move. Inwardly, though, he had a tight grip on his power, ready to thrust it in any direction necessary. “The horses spooked, Mr. Warner. It happens. That's why we use transports and haulers.”
“Your furry rat was down there. I saw it.” Warner seemed to gather himself, releasing his hold on the other man's shirt. “You may be able to get away with being a red-sympathizer back east, Agent Marcus, but out here it's going to make you a very unpopular fellow.”
“Noted.” Several of the hired guns gave Caleb ugly looks as they got to their feet and started the walk back to their transports. The Peacemaker returned the glances with flat neutrality, making certain they were all on their way back before he made his own way down the small hill.
He'd gone no more than two steps before a gunshot rang out, echoing off the distant mountains, followed quickly by another. Sick dread knotting his guts, he spun to see Schmidt fire off two more rounds, reloading faster than he'd thought possible, the augmented bullets streaking blue across the distance to drop the second horse in its tracks. Both animals screamed in agony, their front legs shattered.
Schmidt shouldered his rifle with no expression, never even glancing at Caleb as he passed on his way down the grassy hill.
Ernst appeared out of the tall grass, huddling near Caleb's boot. “That man has no soul.”
“Literally or figuratively?” Caleb looked down when his familiar didn't answer. “Or do I want to know?”
With a sigh, Caleb turned to look over the now-empty encampment. The two downed animals were making the most blood-curdling noises, thrashing their immense bulks about in the tall grass. “We can't just leave them like that.”
Caleb made his way down the hill slowly, unsure what the injured animals might do, but neither horse seemed to register his presence, so far gone were they into their pain. He drew his pistol from its holster, checking the bullets more for an excuse to delay than out of any real necessity.
“Do it, Caleb. Don't let them suffer, please.” Ernst's antlers sparked with his distress.
The Peacemaker took careful aim at the first animal and fired, not even bothering to augment the shot. The bullet took the horse in the temple, and the great beast lay still. Another shot quieted the second, and with the screams gone, the prairie seemed eerily silent, as if the world had stopped to notice the passing of the two beautiful creatures.
“Is the family safe, Ernst?”
“I think so. They're gone, at any rate.”
Caleb shook his head, adjusting his hat down over his eyes. “I don't know what power that woman has, but it's a damn lucky thing. How the hell did they just disappear like that?” Holstering his pistol, he started back up the grassy hill, with Ernst hopping along behind.
“It wasn't her. It was the boy.”
Caleb whistled low. “And they wonder why we lost at the Little Bighorn.” The Indians were endowed with powers no white man understood; that was a given. But if even their children were capable of vanishing in plain sight, it boded poorly for further expansion into the west.