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Authors: Sherwood Smith

Stranger (23 page)

BOOK: Stranger
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27

YUKI

YUKI SHADED HIS EYES AGAINST THE FIRST RAYS OF
dawn. Mr. Riley and the others on the day's patrol waited outside the stable, but Ross was nowhere to be seen. The teenage sentries peered down at them from the sentry walk. Everyone was watching, amused or pitying, as if Yuki had been stood up at a dance.

Mr. Riley leaned down from his seat on Spot, the pinto mare, his dreadlocks swinging. “When did you last speak to Ross about his riding lesson?”

“Yesterday morning, at school. He knows he's supposed to be here.”

“We can't wait any longer. The two of you will have to catch up with us.”

As the patrol rode out, Henry called down from the wall, “Hey, babysitter! Did your baby toddle off and leave you alone?”

Yuki's mother clapped her hands. “Back to work, sentries.”

“Yes, Ms. Lowenstein!” Henry said with exaggerated respect and an unnecessary salute.

She turned her baleful yellow eyes on him. “Or do we need extra drill after your watch?”

“Shut up, Henry,” said Sujata. They all scrambled into position.

Yuki took one last look around, but he saw only the kids in the training corrals, the grooms with the tired horses from the night patrol, and Mrs. Riley soothing a mare in heat.

Gritting his teeth, he returned Fuego and Snow to their stalls. Ross was the one who had shirked his duty, but Yuki was the one who had been made to look like a fool. He regretted having told him off after the rattlesnake attack. If he'd kept his mouth shut, Jennie would never have given him this assignment.

He wished he were with Paco, who had been assigned sit-down duty until his knee healed. Making arrows at the armory was tedious, but it wouldn't feel that way with Paco there. . . .

“Stay, Kogatana,” he ordered. She leaped up on to Fuego's saddle, and began to clean her whiskers.

Yuki set off for the surgery, expecting to see Ross running toward the stables, or to meet someone who would explain that he had been taken ill or sprained his ankle or been sent to run some crucial errand. Not even a ten-year-old—not even Henry—would simply not show up for an assigned task.

At the surgery, he yanked off his boots, then hurried inside, surprising Dr. Lee.

“Where is he?” Yuki demanded.

“Yuki! You startled me!” Dr. Lee was filling a jar with some pungent liquid. “Where is who?”

“Ross was supposed to meet me for a riding lesson.”

“Ah. His room is at the top of the stairs. Knock first.”

Yuki took the stairs three at a time. He slipped and caught himself painfully against the banister. He banged on the door, then threw it open. The room was empty.

“He may be at Mia's,” called the doctor. “Knock first. Actually, let me come with you.”

Yuki jammed his feet back into his boots and stalked out, Dr. Lee following him. He forced himself to rap more politely on the door to Mia's cottage.

No answer.

He tried again. Nothing. He opened the door.

Ross was asleep—asleep!—on the floor, leaning against a sleeping Mia. Their backs rested against a bed piled with machinery and loose pages. Between them rested a jug of . . . something.

Yuki's expectations of Ross had been low to begin with, but this was unbelievable. He was even more surprised by Mia, who was responsible, if a bit absentminded.

The sound of laughter startled him. Dr. Lee leaned against the door, wiping his eyes.

Yuki didn't find it the slightest bit funny. While Mia and Ross had been having their drunken party, he'd helped Paco with a series of painful exercises to keep his knee flexible. Ross hadn't actually shot Paco, but he'd contributed to that disaster. Getting drunk enough to miss his riding lesson was not only selfish and irresponsible, it showed a total lack of respect for Yuki as a person and his role as Ross's teacher.

“Wake up!” he shouted.

If he hadn't been so angry, the way the two jumped would have been hilarious. Ross kicked the jug over—Yuki was surprised to discover it was full of hibiscus tea, not liquor—and Mia flailed her arms, then dived for her glasses, knocking them under her desk. She scrambled after them, sending a flurry of papers across the floor.

Ross's next reaction was even stranger. He clutched at his ankles with both hands, then fumbled behind his back and whipped out a wrench, which he brandished like a weapon.

“What are you doing?” Yuki demanded.

Ross squinted at the wrench, then put it down again, flushing a dark red-brown all the way to the tips of his ears.

Mia had found her glasses, and was busy shoving the papers away from the pool of hibiscus tea, her hair falling into her crimson face. “Dad? What are you doing here?” She cast Yuki a nervous glance. “What are
you
doing here?”

“You're late,” he said to Ross. “You have a riding lesson. Remember?”

From the look on Ross's face, he clearly had not remembered.

“I'm sorry. I'll get dressed.” He glanced down at his grubby jeans and shirt. “Never mind. I'll go now.”

Yuki walked out in a rage. Ross caught up, wincing every time his feet hit the ground. He looked terrible. His hair was stringy, the shadows around his bloodshot eyes were as dark as if someone had punched him, and he moved as if the air hurt his skin.

“What did you two put in that hibiscus tea?” snapped Yuki. “Dr. Lee's preserving alcohol?”

“Let's get on with the lesson.”

At the armory, Yuki picked up two saddle swords and his bow and arrows, then waited impatiently as, one by one, Ross tested the balance of four knives. The guy could weigh himself down with all the knives in the world, but they'd never make up for the fact that he couldn't wield a sword or shoot a bow.

Ross recoiled when the bright morning sunlight struck his face. He backed up and leaned against the doorway.

That was the last straw. Yuki folded his arms. “You don't want to learn? Fine. We're done here. Go nurse your hangover.”

Ross looked up in confusion. “I don't—I do want to learn.”

“You're not acting like it.”

“I'm here, aren't I?”

Someone cleared their throat loudly from the sentry walk. Yuki looked up into his mother's narrowed cat-eyes. “Do your job, Yuki,” she ordered. “Do you want your life to depend on someone you didn't teach to ride?”

Then she turned her yellow gaze on Ross. “As for you, it looks like you've already punished yourself. If you don't like working with a hangover, don't drink more than you can handle.”

Ross opened his mouth, then closed it. He gave Yuki's mother a quick nod.

“Let's go.” Yuki mounted Fuego slowly, so Ross could see how it should be done.

He was still brooding on his mother's words as they rode toward the gate. He knew his life might depend on anyone in Las Anclas, down to the little kid assigned to ring the bell. But he couldn't conceive of trusting them with his life. He imagined himself in some pitched battle, certain that the person at his back would protect him, as he was protecting them. He could imagine Paco in that position, and Sera. He could imagine Meredith, and his mom. That was it.

He certainly couldn't imagine trusting Ross, who couldn't even manage the reins correctly. Yuki raised his hand to demonstrate. “Hold them like this.”

He knew that Ross had an injury to his left hand, but this was the first time he'd paid attention to how Ross used it. Leaning over the saddle, Yuki watched Ross struggle to close his fist. The muscles in his forearm bulged and the scar went from white to pink, but he couldn't get his fingers to touch his thumb. There was no way he could grip the reins.

Yuki took a deep breath, trying to set his anger aside. He had a job to do. As long as Ross was willing to put in minimal effort, Yuki would do whatever he could to ensure that he learned how to ride competently, if not well.

“Grip with your thighs. You don't really need the reins to ride. See?” He tucked his reins under one knee, raised his empty hands, and urged Fuego forward. “I'm telling him which way to turn by shifting my balance and nudging him with my knee. Horses are very sensitive. You don't kick them. You don't jab them. And you don't yank on their mouths. Press with your right knee. Gently.”

Ross gave him a doubtful glance, then obeyed. Snow circled the yard. His suspicious look changed to a tentative smile, but the smile vanished when he reached Yuki again. “Okay. What next?”

“Let's catch up with the patrol. I can explain more on the way.” Yuki nudged Fuego to move, and Snow followed.

Outside the gates, he started to ride in the patrol's tracks, which led to the left.

“Whoa!” Snow was plunging, ears back. “Why's she doing that?” Ross asked through gritted teeth, clinging to the saddle.

“Something's spooking her.
You're
spooking her.” He followed Ross's fixed gaze to the left, toward the cornfields and the ridge beyond. Then he remembered how Fuego had balked at the blood-red singing tree.

“If you're scared of something, it'll scare your horse. They're sensitive, remember? They tense up if you tense up.” Yuki jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Turn right. We won't catch up with the patrol anyway. Let's practice balance.”

The sunlight brightened as they passed the squash fields, and a flock of hummingbirds zoomed past, signaling to one another with bright flashes of their reflective wings. Kogatana tapped Yuki with her paw. He whipped up his bow and nocked an arrow.

A coyote scout tilted its tawny ears toward them from behind a bush. It yipped twice quickly, and then a third time. The bushes rustled as the rest of the pack retreated.

The coyote packs never gave up hope that they might catch a rider off guard, so they sent scouts to check out most patrols. Yuki glanced at Ross, expecting him to be fumbling for his sword atop a skittish Snow. Ross held a knife by its blade—something six-year-olds were taught not to do—but the angle of his wrist and the way he gauged distance suggested that he knew what he was doing. Snow stood perfectly still, without even a toss of her head.

“Think they're gone?” Ross asked.

Kogatana was cleaning her whiskers. “Yes. Kogatana would still be alert if they weren't.”

Ross flipped the knife into the air and caught it by the hilt. It was a classic show-off move.

Yuki was not impressed. “Let's try the trot.” He demonstrated how to rise and settle into the saddle, matching the horse's rhythm.

Ross didn't do as badly as Yuki expected, and he decided that Ross probably wouldn't fall off if he held a sword. Yuki was about to give the order when Kogatana squealed in warning. Fuego plunged down and nearly threw him, and a dark shape leaped for the horse's neck.

Yuki fought to regain his balance and rip his sword free. Before he could, a tarantula fell away from Fuego. The huge spider curled up in the dust, furry legs thrashing. Red-streaked liquid oozed out around the hilt of Ross's knife.

Fuego tossed his head and struggled to pull up his leg. Yuki leaped down. Fuego's hoof was caught in a sticky web trap. Yuki cut him free and checked his leg. To his relief, the horse was unhurt.

Ross clambered down, and used his saddle sword to flick his knife away from the dead tarantula.

“The blood is poisonous. Don't touch it,” Yuki said, then regretted the words—Ross clearly knew what he was doing.

Ross cleaned his knife in the sand and didn't reply.

“Thanks,” Yuki said. “That was a good throw. But why did you hold it by the blade?”

“Depends on the balance. This one's weighted toward the hilt.” He handed over the knife. Yuki tried holding it by the blade. It felt incredibly awkward. Ross repositioned his fingers. “Like that.”

With Yuki's hand in his, Ross moved to aim at a distant cactus. Then he slid the knife from Yuki's hand and threw it.

The knife thudded into the cactus. Spines shot out in all directions and pattered down on the sand. Ross stepped around them to retrieve the knife. “Just practice,” he said, returning it to his boot.

Now Yuki understood why Ross had grabbed at his ankles when Yuki had woken him up—he'd been reaching for knives. No wonder Dr. Lee kept warning him to knock.

All his training had failed to give Yuki reflexes like that. While he'd been drilling endlessly and occasionally fighting animals, Ross had been seeing the world and surviving real dangers. And he'd apparently done it all on foot, with no weapons other than those little daggers.

“I wish I'd had a bow when that bounty hunter was after me,” Ross said. “I mean, I wish I knew how to shoot one.”

“Just practice,” Yuki said. But he didn't say it mockingly. “We better move on. We should get the horses to the stream before it gets too hot.”

Heat waves shimmered in the air. It was a relief when they finally reached the stream at the bottom of a gully. A shadow flickered over their faces as a hawk rode the air currents above.

“Damn.” Ross pulled up his mare an instant before Yuki saw a man's silhouette step deliberately to the edge of the cliff, blocking the sun.

Ross gripped one of his knives, and Yuki reached for his bow. The man leaned against his rifle, which was pointed upward, not at them, and stood silently, watching as the horses descended toward the stream. Ross turned until he was almost backward in the saddle, his gaze unwavering, until the bounty hunter was out of sight.

The smooth rhythm of Fuego's walk had broken. Yuki deliberately relaxed his muscles, breathed evenly, and told himself to be calm. Eventually, Fuego calmed down too. “He could have shot us,” Yuki finally said.

“He could have shot me.” Ross kept glancing back. “He wanted me to see him.”

“If he doesn't want to kill you, then what does he want from you?”

Ross's gaze shifted away. “Nothing.”

BOOK: Stranger
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