Tacánecy tenses as she waits to begin her next count. The lightning is closer now, and she readies herself for a silent and measured five. She prays her sleeping husband will not hear the sound she is about to make.
Despite herself, she jumps when a piercing flash lances through the window in the opposite wall and, in a spasm of blue-white light, illuminates her husband’s Hawken rifle hanging on the wall beside her. It flickers lethally for a moment before the room goes black again.
One. Two. Three. Four. Her grip tightens on the soft doeskin shroud on the floor at her feet.
Five. On cue, the thunderclap vibrates through the soles of her moccasins and rattles a china cup against its shelf-mate. Its roar masks the whisper of leather against wood as she drags the bundle a few steps closer to the cabin door.
She pauses as the rumble rolls away into the black night’s silence. There is a moment when her knees nearly buckle. A moment when her mind rekindles the image of what lies inside the wraps of doeskin: the death-white skin, the slightly open mouth, and the patches of red that mar the neck and face of her daughter’s lifeless body.
Was it only last night–another life ago–she had dragged Lena from the river? Her throat still burns from the awful sounds she had made, strange animal sounds, as she pulled the dress over her daughter’s stiffening limbs, combed her hair for the last time, tried to close her resisting eyelids, wrapped her in the doeskin shroud. A keening claws at her throat again, urgent, like a caged bear. She chokes it back. The wailing time must wait. Now her heart must be stone.
A stirring from the bed in the next room propels her hand to the haft of the skinning knife under her beaded belt. Would she actually use it against him, Medina, her husband of twenty-eight snows? She has no plan, no talking way, to explain her actions should he awake and confront her. A week ago, battling him with a blade would have been unthinkable. Now her white-knuckled grip betrays the depth of her new obsession. Everything has changed.
When no further sound comes from the bed, her hand relaxes and returns to the bundle. Another flash invades the room. She counts four beats this time. Another crash and another stealthy drag, and she is at the door. Her hand finds the cast iron latch and rests there.
The thunder noise is alarmingly loud. Glancing toward the bed, she worries that the sound of the storm, rather than the click of the latch, will rouse him. When the next thunderclap comes she eases the latch open with one hand and wrestles the corpse over the threshold with the other. The rusty hinges, greased the day before with lard from the can she keeps by the wood stove, do not betray her. Her shoulders relax. She feels the stirring cool of the storm’s wind against the sweaty roots of her hair.
The wind! She had not planned for wind. Like scouts for an advancing army, chill drafts slip past her into the open doorway, lift the corner of the oilcloth on the eating table, and chase the warm, tobacco pipe air of the cabin into the next room and across the inert form on the bed. The storm had answered her prayer to cover the sounds of her escape. But she failed to consider its whispering outriders.
She swings the door closed. It whumps against the door jam. The latch falls into place with a metallic chunk.
“God be damned!” Her hissing curse shocks her as much as the wind itself. Never before has she uttered such words. Her hand clutches for the rosary beads around her waist. Then she remembers. The black beads dot the floor where she flung them the night before. Glistening reminders of Jésu’s betrayal.
She presses her ear against the keyhole and hears…what? The straining creak of bed ropes in their sideboard moorings? A footfall on the squeaky floorboard under the Hawken rifle?
With a stifled grunt she hefts the bundle into her arms and staggers off the porch. Her hip joints creak with the strain of it. With unsteady steps she gimps toward the barn. Flashes light the way. A single, giant raindrop splatters on her cheek and runs down into her open mouth. It tastes of salt. She is crying, she realizes. She bites her tongue to make herself stop.
Her heaving nostrils draw in the unmistakable, welcoming smell of rain washing through the thirsty air in the foothills a mile or two to the west. It will be here soon.
She eases the bundle to the packed earth inside the main barn door. Memory guiding her, she grabs a handful of grain from a bucket inside the tack room and runs through the blackness to a side door into the corral. Storm-spooked horses mill about, tails aloft, necks arched. She holds the grain out to a big roan gelding. He approaches her with wild eyes, the prospect of a treat temporarily overcoming his urge to bolt and run before the wind. But before he can eat, her daughter’s black mare, the one called Shy Bird, shoulders the roan aside. She entices the mare into the barn with the grain.
Inside, the familiar smell of hay, trampled horse droppings and sweaty leather overpowers the gathering storm smells outside. She slips a rawhide chin rope into the tall mare’s mouth, slings the single rein over its neck and urges it toward the front door where the bundle lies.
Upon scenting the body, Shy Bird snorts and side-steps, eyes rimming white. “Do not be afraid,” Tacánecy says, to herself as much as the horse. She strokes the animal’s quivering shoulder and croons a sleep song remembered from her childhood. The song had always quieted Lena when she was a wide-eyed baby. With her other hand she reaches into her waist pouch, fingers feeling yet again the beaded bumps on the small leather bag she had removed from her daughter’s neck the day before, the amulet she had given to Lena to bind them together.
Shy Bird, you will carry Lena one last time. She pins the mare’s chin rope against the ground with her foot. The bundle resists as she strains to heft it high against the horse’s side and wrestle it up and over the tall withers. Its ghastly stiffness unnerves her. She ties a rope on either end and pulls down hard to bend it in the middle and snub it down. Another cry swells in her throat. She bites her hand to quell it.
From the tack room she grabs two large blankets she had rolled up the day before. She leaves the saddles and bridles where they rest on wood rails. Tonight I ride in the style of my people, she thinks. And for this, of all rides, it is a good thing to have Lena’s horse.
From the open barn doorway she peers back the way she came. In the next lightning flash, the log house jumps out at her from the blackness, its dark logs and white chinking both momentarily reduced to a uniform, silvery gray. Nothing moves in the shadowy doorway.
She leads the mare to the pole corral fence, climbs onto the first rail, hoists her right leg over the mare’s back and settles stiffly into place behind her daughter’s body. It is the first time she has been on the back of a horse since her vow, taken in the long ago in atonement for her sins, to never ride again.
She takes up the single rein in one hand and the blanket roll in the other. With her knees she urges the big mare forward. Fused by the gloom into a single, shadowy shape, they move toward the compound’s northern side, the one nearest the river. Two more big drops splat on her rein-holding hand. Ahead of her waits the wooden toll bridge.
She takes one last look at the log house as another lightning flash ushers her out of the compound. Still no sign of life. Maybe she will make it. Then Medina can rave at her all he wants, beat her, even. He will never find Lena’s body. She will make sure of it.
In the early days, she could never have gotten away undetected. He would have heard the door closing, or even the soft brushing of the leather against the floor. His years as a trapper and scout had taught him to sleep on the edge of consciousness, to come fully awake at any unusual sound, his Hawken rifle within easy reach. But during their time at the Crossing he had grown less cautious, and at sixty-three snows, less keen of ear. Besides, he had drunk several cups of whisky that night, unusual for him, but understandable considering his shock.
“Taos Lightening” the whisky was called. A grim smile pulls at her mouth. Two kinds of lightning are helping her this night. She wishes it’s magic could somehow bring Lena back to life.
At the bridge she reins in, waiting for the next roll of thunder. When it comes, she digs in her heels. The mare clatters across in a burst of storm-sparked energy.
Barely visible on the opposite side stands the fort. Square and squat, its whitewashed stone walls are slitted with black gun holes. Built by her husband after a Ute raid years ago, the fort has never been used for its intended purpose. Just like the fancy schooling her husband had tried to cram into Lena. At the thought of her daughter’s unhappiness at the nun’s school, bitter bile rises in her throat.
Tacánecy turns left in front of the fort and lopes westward along the riverbank trail, heading upstream directly into the storm. The splatters of rain are laced with tiny needles of ice that sting her hands and face. The drops are more frequent now, formed in the tumult of the great looming thunderhead that blots out most of the night sky. Windy gusts snarl through low willows, chasing the dank scent of moss-coated river rocks away from the onrushing rain. Its growing roar overpowers the river’s steady rush.
In a flash of lightening she sees ahead a wall of rain so dense that nothing can be seen beyond it. Then it swallows them, drenching them in seconds, blotting out all other sound. Behind them, the hoof prints in the silty clay of the river trail melt away without a trace.
They arrive at the spot where a small stream enters from the South. Dry Creek, the settlers call it. After tonight it will have to be called Wet Creek. Like my eyes.
Her plan was to follow this rivulet a while before returning to the main channel across a rocky sandstone ridge. This maneuver would have slowed her husband’s pursuit long enough to complete her work. But the storm makes this bit of cunning unnecessary. She sends another prayer of thanks for the storm.
Despite the chill and wet, she relaxes now that they are safely enveloped in the storm’s center. The mare slows, picking her way along the trail through the liquid mud. Shy Bird feels warm beneath her legs. Steam rises from the mare’s back into the rain-soaked air. Despite her long absence from the back of a horse, she molds herself to its rocking rhythm, marveling at the body’s memory of things past.
An image of Lena astride the mare forms in her mind. Long black hair blowing in the wind like a second horse’s tail. Face alight with smile. Lithe body glued to the mare’s back. Like me when I was her age. Back when I still had dreams. She banishes the image with a kick in Shy Bird’s side.
After an hour, the rain dribbles to a stop. A nearly full moon emerges from under the western edge of the storm cloud, bathing the landscape in startlingly bright silver light. Cottonwoods stretch their dripping arms skyward. Pine needles glisten. Bushes on the nearby slopes make dark silhouettes against the buffalo grass waving in the fresh washed breeze. A dismal beauty, considering what is now revealed in the river trail behind her: Shy Bird’s hoof prints, stark as signposts, outlined in moon shadow.
She glances back over her left shoulder and sees the tipi-shaped butte named after her husband. Beside her on the right, perpendicular to the river, rises the rocky spine they call the Devil’s Backbone. Hair prickles on her neck. What if he has managed to follow her? She urges Shy Bird into a trot. Not too far ahead lies her destination, the beautiful hidden valley atop the imposing sandstone ridge that stretches up before her to meet the moon. It was to have been their escape route, her and Lena’s trail to the north land. Now it would become her daughter’s final home in this world.
When she reaches the ridge’s base about half an hour later, the place where the river cuts through, she pauses to push the bundle back into place over the horse’s withers. The coldness of what’s inside nearly unnerves her. Then she urges Shy Bird a few steps forward into the river as if she were going to wade upstream through the narrow rock cut and continue along the river trail. Instead, she dismounts onto a huge flat sandstone slab that slopes gently down from the rocky bank into the water beside her. She unrolls the two blankets and spreads them next to each other over the stone. With a tug on the chin rope, she coaxes Shy Bird to step onto the blankets. When all four hooves are on the second blanket, she retrieves the first and places it in front of the horse, urging it forward once again. In this fashion, blanket by blanket, they depart the river trail without leaving a trace on the sandstone or the slope above. After nearly twenty such blanket changes, she stops behind a bush, ties the blankets back on the horse, remounts and moves up toward the saddle in the rimrock that allows her passage into the shallow, hidden valley that lies between the double crested ridge. From the summit she looks back and is startled by a blanket of white that begins about half way between her and their home and extends well past it onto the plains. Hail, shimming in the moonlight, fallen there, but not here. Awestruck, she murmurs her gratitude for the storm’s gift.
Turning from the summit, she crosses the valley, moonstruck into visibility, and reaches the even higher crest on the west. She turns north and rides parallel to the cliff but well back from its edge. Juniper trees and stunted pines rise darkly among a wild jumble of sandstone rock formations. Her eyes cast about for the one she is seeking. The rock spirits gather around her. Their whispering voices fail to bring calm. She feels lost.
At last she sees it. The entrance to the cave-like hideaway. Two huge sandstone slabs leaning together to form a tipi-shaped cave guarded by a thick juniper bush cover over the entry. Lena’s resting place. The secret spot Otter Woman, in the form of a gray jay, had led her to the month after Lena’s ride in Denver City. Its purpose had only come to her during yesterday’s death watch, the day that seemed never to end, the day she sat beside Lena’s leather-wrapped body keening a death song until her voice gave out. In this cave she will do for Lena in death what she failed to do for Lena in life: protect her from her husband’s reach.
* * *
To the east over the vast plains, where a hint of dawn outlines the horizon, the storm sparks and crashes. It is well past their home now. She imagines Medina sleeping there, and bitterness seizes her heart. Medina, her proud, stubborn, husband. If only he had not insisted on sending Lena back to that accursed school, Lena would be alive today. If only…
But as she dismounts and leans against the leather shroud, feeling the shape of Lena’s stiff legs against her body, something unwelcome sprouts and spreads: a guilt so profound she must grab Shy Bird’s mane to keep from falling to the rocky ground.