Authors: K. A. Stewart
The child shook her head, biting her lower lip, and Ernst redoubled his purring efforts. Sarah came to sit next to her little girl, stroking her hair gently. “It's all right, Emily. No one is going to get in trouble. We just want to make sure no one else is going to get sick.”
After a few more moments of squeezing the stuffing out of the purring jackalope, the child finally offered, “We don't get to play at Mr. Warner's. The schoolmaster doesn't allow it. But there are a few other places that we go. It's hard to tell you, but I could draw a picture.”
Caleb smiled and nodded encouragingly. “If I found a map of the area, do you think you could show me on there?”
The doctor was already out the door in search of a map.
By the time a suitable map could be found and Emily Emerson drew her notes and instructions on it in painstakingly careful print, the afternoon was waning, and there would be no time to ride out into the grassland to investigate. Grudgingly, Caleb planned his excursion for the next day.
He spent the evening at the bar, poring over the piece of paper with Hector and Teddy, trying to figure out which of the locations was most likely to pose a hazard.
“Almost all of these are right here around the town. If there was nullstone there, we'd hae noticed.”
Caleb nodded his agreement with the Scottish bartender. “I was thinking of exploring these two here”âhe pointed at two locations between the town and Warner's ranchâ“since they pass by those every day on their way to school. After that, I'll head north.” And if that search proved fruitless, the next course would be to search Warner's place. He didn't see that going over well with the rancher. “How often do you really think they pack up and ride out this far?”
“Durin' the summer, probably near ta once a week or more. Whole gang of them go oot there, with the older ones keepin' watch. They take picnics.”
The northernmost point was very near to where they'd encountered the hungry Indian family, as close as Caleb could guess. Was that a coincidence? If the Indian boy's magical strength was any indication, there was nothing out there to harm anyone. “Can you pack me some food for the road tomorrow, Teddy? I don't know how long I'll be out.”
“O' course. And some whiskey for yer wee friend.” Ernst favored him with an ecstatic purr.
None of Warner's men had returned to town after the posse that morning, but Caleb watched the regulars anyway and kept his voice down. “No one needs to know that I've gone poking around. I don't know how some folks would take that.”
Hector and Teddy both nodded, the shop keeper adding, “Sure enough, we don't know a thing.”
“Thank you both for all your help. I'm not the most popular fellow in the county right now, and I know you're risking some ill will with your neighbors by helping me.”
“The way I see it is this, Agent Marcus,” said Hector. “Most folks are decent. Just sometimes, someone shouts a bit louder, and they all forget what's right. Deep down, they know, and they'll act right when it really matters.” He nodded his head on his tall, thin neck.
Teddy was a bit less philosophical. “And Warner's a horse's ass. Murderin' women and children, when everybody knew they couldnae hae been the ones what raided that homestead. I dinnae mind makin' the reds pay for what they're doin', but ye cannae tell me that family did anythin'.” His face was red beneath his beard by the time he'd finished, his accent almost thick enough to be unintelligible. “What kinda monster kills children?”
“More whiskey, please.” Ernst sat up on his hind legs, his front paws pressed primly to his chest.
Successfully diverted from what was sure to be an angry rant, the barkeep hurried to serve his new favorite customer. “Here ye go, a dram before bedtime.” He poured a shot of alcohol into the shallow dish, and Ernst set to lapping it up eagerly. “Never seen a creature like his whiskey so much. Except my old grandda.”
Caleb smiled fondly at his familiar. “I smoke; he drinks. On the whole, we're quite the pair of reprobates.”
Hector leaned down to peer closely at Ernst. “Does he actually get drunk?” The jackalope looked up, licking drops of whiskey from his whiskers with his tiny pink tongue, and Hector sat up so fast he nearly toppled from his stool.
“A gentleman is never drunk,” Ernst stated stiffly, which was followed by a miniature belch that completely ruined the effect.
“Speaking of bedtimeÂ .Â .Â .” Caleb gathered his staff and his hat. “If we're going to spend tomorrow riding that god-awful thing around the county, I should get some sleep. You coming, Ernst?”
The creature eyed the bottles of whiskey behind Teddy's bar thoughtfully. “I'll be along presently. You go on.”
Caleb rolled his eyes. “You'd better start charging him, Teddy, or he'll drink you out of house and home.”
The room was stuffy and hot, and opening the window did nothing but let in the night-flying insects and dust. Still, Caleb made the attempt, lying on top of the quilt in a vain attempt to get cool. He did his best to get comfortable, laying one arm up over his head, pounding the hard pillow a dozen times to try to get it just right. It was a lost cause, and he finally just lay in the dark, staring up at the ceiling. On the table next to him, his pocket watch softly ticked off the minutes, dragging on into hours.
He didn't expect to sleep well, if at all, so when the dreams began, he was genuinely surprised even in his semiconscious state.
The air scorched his lungs as he breathed in, and, he slapped at the burning cinders that had fallen into his hair, his hat long since lost in the chaos. The soothing blue glow of the streetlamps had given way to the ominous red haze, until it appeared that the clouds above them in the night sky were smoldering.
“Here! There are more in here!” Ernst appeared around his feet, the familiar taking the form of a nimble black cat, nudging him toward the location of more trapped residents. Caleb found his path blocked and put his shoulder against the charred beam, trying to heave it out of the way.
Rufus appeared out of the smoke, coughing and hacking, but between the two men, they cleared the doorway. Inside, voices were calling for help, screaming out in terror. “I'll get them. You clear me a path.”
Caleb nodded and reached for the fire all around them. It lurked in the ceilings of the building they were in, curling hungry tendrils around the floorboards under their feet. He could feel it, angry and seeking, and he grabbed hold, pulling all of that destructive energy into himself. It railed inside him, imprisoned in a form it was not meant to take. Another day, well rested, he might have been able to feed that extra power out through his familiar, but that much control had been lost sometime in the previous hours, and so he would hold it himself. A moment's lapse in concentration, and it would find a way out. His skin would curl and burn from the inside. He'd just seen it happen to two other Peacemakers.
The walls around them snuffed out suddenly, wisps of smoke replacing tongues of flame. “Hurry, Rufus. It's getting stronger.”
The other Peacemaker bolted into the dark hallway, charred floorboards creaking ominously under his boots. Caleb could feel the power behind the fire looking for him, furious that something had stolen its energy. He would be able to hold on only so long.
“Go, go, go!” Rufus herded a soot-blackened family past him, carrying the youngest child in his arms. “Give us thirty seconds, Caleb, then get the hell out!”
He tried to count to thirty, but the flame inside him would not let his mind find the numbers. It was hungry, it was angry, and it wanted to be free. Ernst was butting his furry head against his knee, urging him to let go. Finally, he was forced to release it, and he could only pray that Rufus had gotten the family clear.
The flames roared back to reclaim their territory and then some, and Caleb felt his brows and eyelashes singe to nothing as he staggered for the stairs. It followed him, drawing in a breath deep enough to flutter the tatters of his shirtsleeves, then bellowed out a gout of flame and ash that would easily incinerate him.
A shield sprang up around him, and the fire whipped around the globe, raging when it could not find entry. Caleb breathed the artificially pure air in great gulping lungfuls until he staggered into the street, collapsing at Rufus's feet. Ernst appeared right next to him, the tip of his long black tail smoking.
The blond Peacemaker, whose hair had long gone as dark as Caleb's own with soot and sweat, dropped the shield he'd put around his partner and yanked him to his feet. “This block is lost, Caleb. We have to go!”
Reluctantly, Caleb let Rufus drag him from the scene, and the building gave a ponderous groan as it collapsed behind them. There were other men moving in the smoke around them, passing buckets, and sparks of power flared where people tried futilely to direct the flames around their homes or businesses.
“George! George, over here!” Rufus waved to two other Peacemakers as they crossed the street a block away. “Where are we supposed to be making a fire break? We got separated from Daws about an hour ago.”
George was supporting his partner with one arm, the other man sporting a vicious gash over one eye. He barely paused to answer. “It jumped the river. We're pulling back! It's lost!”
“Dear GodÂ .Â .Â .” Rufus's eyes were wide and staring, the whites showing brilliantly against his ash-blackened face. “They can't just let it burn.Â .Â .Â .”
“There's no letting it, man. It's going to do it whether we want it to or not!” George staggered off as fast as he could with an injured man in tow, leaving Rufus and Caleb alone in the middle of the charred wreckage. Even the hardy water brigade had abandoned their positions, leaving their buckets lying next to empty water barrels.
Chicago was burning.
Caleb knew they had to move. He knew, as with the rest of his dreamed memories, that the building to their right was going to collapse in another moment, the rain of debris trapping Rufus beneath it. He knew that the beam would crush his partner's life from his lungs, and that he would be forced to leave the body or burn along with him.
He knew it, and he could not prevent it, could neither move nor speak a warning. Such was the way of dreams.
In the alley to their left, a woman's voice wafted forth, humming softly. It was a soothing melody, lilting, and it had no place amid this frequent terror of Caleb's nights. Even in the dream, he was able to frown in puzzlement.
The shadows moved in the alley, at first easily mistaken for the swirls and eddies of smoke. But there was no mistaking the dark eyes he found looking back at him, framed by twin black braids.
The Indian woman tilted her head curiously, her skin and clothing remarkably free of ash and char.
“NoÂ .Â .Â . no, you can't be here.Â .Â .Â . The building is going to fall. You have to run!” She obviously didn't understand him, and she smiled softly. “No, don't smile! Run! You have toÂ .Â .Â .” He suddenly remembered Rufus, realized that he could speak again. “Rufus, you have to run!”
But Rufus was gone. There was no one standing in the street beside him. The flames seemed to have halted their inexorable advance and merely flickered in the windows and rooftops, waiting.
“Ernst?” The black cat was gone, too, and there was no sense of his presence nearby. “WhatÂ .Â .Â .Â ?” He blinked, wiping sweat and blood from his face as he stared around in confusion. “What's happening?”
The Indian woman never answered, merely turning to walk down the street in the opposite direction, humming softly. Every so often, she glanced back to see if he was following.
Numb, perplexed, he did. In his daze, he stumbled over the rubble in the street, fellÂ .Â .Â .
And opened his eyes to find himself lying flat on his back, staring up at a high ceiling. There was a low sound of life around him, the constant quiet bustle as people passed by with hushed conversations. The blanket beneath his hands was warm, dry, but scratchy, and the smell of antiseptic stung his nostrils. The calming blue lantern on the table beside him cast a soothing aura, but, trapped beneath a heavy bandage, his right eye saw nothing. He explored it with his fingers, recognizing the careful folds of gauze and linen.
He knew where he was. This was the hospital outside Washington. How long ago had Cold Harbor been now? For four days, the dead and injured had lain on the field, waiting for the cease-fire. But he was safe now.Â .Â .Â . Why was he dreaming of the hospital? He never dreamed of what came after.
The heavy weight on his chest stirred, and he realized a large ferret was curled up with him, watching him with heavy-lidded eyes.
“He won't leave your side, you know.” One of the nurses smiled as she came to sit on the chair next to his bed. “He's been most adamant about waiting for you to wake. He was the only one who was certain you would.”
He reached to stroke the creature's ears and was rewarded with a deep vibrating purr, a sound a real ferret shouldn't be able to make. “HeÂ .Â .Â .Â ?”
“He says his name is Ernst.” The nurse patted his shoulder. “I'm going to go tell the doctor you're awake.”
Caleb dropped his head to his pillow, trying to grasp what was happening. Why was he back in the hospital? And why did he feel like he'd been following someone? And where was that humming coming from?
A woman was humming softly, no doubt to one of the other injured soldiers, but he couldn't remember ever hearing that before in this particular memory. As he craned his neck to locate the source of the lullaby, he caught a glimpse of a tall woman with raven black hair walking past the doorway at the end of the ward. Her knee-high boots made no sound on the floor, but even from a distance, he could hear the rustle of the beads on her leather dress. And stranger still, no one else seemed to notice the Indian woman walking calmly in their midst.
“This isn't right. This isn't how it happened.” When he looked down for the ferret's confirmation, Ernst was gone. As were the people in the beds on either side, and the nurses who had been patrolling the aisles. Only the humming remained, soft and delicate.
“Why are you doing this?” he called, without really expecting an answer. “You have no right to just walk through my memories like this!” Because that was what she was doing. Somehow, with a power he could not fathom, the Indian woman had walked into his dreams and was sorting through them, sorting through him.