Conflict excerpt

Chapter 1, Sunday

Most of the staff and guests were finishing up their coffee or clearing trays as Joe entered the dining hall. Good. He grabbed a clean tray and mechanically filled it from the remains of the breakfast buffet.

Unofficial ranch policy urged staff to mingle with the guests whenever appropriate, but there was no way could he handle small talk after last night. Avoiding eye contact with the remaining diners, he walked over to an empty table and sat down.

Joe took a bite of something. Chewed.

“You’re running late this morning.” A voice interrupted his thoughts. “Hey, what’s wrong? You’re as pale as I am.”

Joe looked up as Brent slipped his wiry frame into the opposite chair.

“Too bad about your color.” Larry’s dark skinned mass filled his vision to the right. “I’d say ya looked like ya lost one of your best friends, but we’re both here.” The seat next to Joe groaned as Larry settled into it.

Joe grunted. He couldn’t really argue. “Had a strange dream last night. Kind of weirded me out.” He took another bite. He looked down at the plate he’d loaded without thinking. Egg. “I’ve been having them the last few nights. Always a view of a village in a large clearing. Surrounded by low rolling hills.”

“Sounds fairly pleasant,” Brent said as Joe took another bite.

Joe shook his head. “Last night was different. It felt more personal. And evil.” He paused and glanced around the dining hall, and then lowered his voice. “In the dream, the moonlit village was nearly obscured by a low mist. I was watching from the summit of a nearby low, squarish hill that barely stuck up above that mist. I was lying on my belly, surveying the land around the village. And I was scared shitless.”

Joe stared at Larry and Brent. They sat drinking their after-breakfast coffee and waiting for him to go on.

“My heart woke me, it was pounding so hard. I went to the sink to splash myself back to reality,” Joe watched his friends’ faces. “Then I went back to bed. Lay there until the alarm went off.”

Joe paused to sip his coffee. He needed to get this said. “In the daylight, I could see dirt stains in the sink and on the towel. My fingernails still had dirt under them. I can still remember bracing myself on my hands, fingers dug into the soil of that hill as I lifted my head to look around.”

After a few seconds, Brent’s left eyebrow rose a fraction of an inch. “When you have a vivid dream, you don’t hold back.”

“Start shoveling that food, it’s getting late.” Larry stood, his chair sighing. “We may have students.”


After leaving the dining hall, Joe checked the signup sheet and found no names listed for his scheduled classes. No surprise for a Sunday morning with just over half of the clients either just arriving or leaving. But Brent’s always-popular medicinal herb class was half full; Joe would give him a hand. After lunch, maybe he could hang around Larry’s forge.

Mel intercepted Joe as he crossed the grassy field toward Brent’s shed.

“Got a job for you.” The ranch foreman gave Joe a shoulder squeeze. “Schedule has you down for sleeping all day.” He grinned. “How’d you like a little ride?”

Joe rolled his eyes. “Can’t you white guys run cattle without losing them?”

“It’s that fool new sorrel this time.” Mel let the rib pass. “A dude left the gate open. Decided to leave. The horse, that is.” He gave Joe a few guesses as to where to search as they walked toward the stables.

Entering the cavernous barn, they were joined by Tom. “You’re sending Joe? You wanna lose another horse?”

“What are your thoughts on our escapee?” Mel asked, ignoring the old poke’s wide grin.

“Maybe Spookums headed up either Red Wash or Max Canyon. He was up there several times this past week, hauling pack for the client tours. Mighta got the scent of that band of wild mustangs, the one lead by that paint.”

“So you’re figuring that damn gelding thinks they’d be better company?”

“Maybe.” Tom shrugged. “But if Joe here can get Spookums back, we’ll keep ‘im corralled here awhile. In spite of being ball-less, maybe he’ll remember enough to get friendly with the local mares and wanna stick around.”

“Anywhere else?” Joe asked. There followed much contradictory opinion, ending with Joe planning to head up Red Wash first.

Joe kept his face neutral during the discussion. Any of the more experienced pokes would most likely find the errant Spookums quicker, but they were leading client tours. No doubt any of them would rather be riding alone up in the Crazy Mountains than babysitting dudes.

They walked through the empty stables to the outside paddocks. Tom and Mel changed the subject to the merits and deficiencies of various mounts for the daylong guest ride through the foothills.

While they talked, Joe scanned the mountains, locating the fold in the contours that identified Red Wash. A haze hovered over that locale. Couldn’t be fog. Fire perhaps? Unlikely with the recent rains. The trails were already dry but the deadfall and duff were likely still moist. Tom and Mel didn’t seem to give it any notice.

Joe cut Rosebud out of the herd and saddled her. Rosebud. Not even the pokes knew the origin of the mare’s name.

Just before Joe left, Mel walked out of the stable office with a sheathed rifle. “Been some cougar sightings up that way. Loaded. No shell in the chamber.”

“Come on, Mel. No cat’s going to mess with a full size man.”

“Don’t care about you.” He snorted. “I just want to be sure the horse gets back. You remember which end points away?”

Joe laughed and, after checking the safety slide, secured the rifle to the rear of his saddle. It was a Winchester 94, a model he used to routinely beat the other staff on the ranch’s rifle range. A flash of sadness reminded him of another Winchester he’d used on his hunting trips with his Grandfather. Back when he had family.

He shrugged off the memory and rode out through the stable gate, pausing to close it behind him. He detoured past the garden to wave to Brent before heading toward the misty canyon.

The early autumn day presented a colorful palette with the Crazy Mountain peaks providing clear signposts to Red Wash. He figured about two hours up, a couple to search, and two back. He’d be back in time for the barbeque and new client orientation if that horse wasn’t hiding. A long ride but the day shown clear and the scenery was peaceful.

At a small rise, he looked back at the dim shapes that defined the ranch. It felt like the closest thing to a home he’d had in years, even if it was just a summer job. Closer than the sterile walls of the dorm. After eight years of dropping in and out of school, he only had a few more classes to pass and he’d graduate. Then what to do with a degree in Civil Engineering? Since his grandparents’ deaths, the idea of working on water projects for one of the reservations had lost its appeal. Hell, even though he was registered in four different tribes, he only spoke English. A minor in anthropology wouldn’t help his options much either. Joe shook his head and nudged Rosebud into a trot.

The entrance to Red Wash Canyon was wide and deep with grassy patches. Lots of space for the wild band of horses to wander. As Joe rode, he scanned for moving brown shapes or a flash of white from the wild stallion, but not till he came to Red Creek itself did he bother looking for tracks.

The stream came out of the mountains at a meandering late summer pace. Joe slowed his horse as he approached the sandy edge, originally swept clean by spring flows but now posting a record of recent critters large and small. Eyes sweeping the ground, he slowly made his way along the north side until he was well within the confines of Red Wash Canyon. He picked out a few old prints from the mustangs but nothing fresh. No sign of a shod hoof. With a nudge of his knees, Joe guided Rosebud across to the south side.

Within seconds, Joe spied the fresh prints of shod hooves, stark against those of recent elk and deer. The stride was a walk, leaving the creek and moving into a break in the brush that bordered the water like a fence.

Letting Rosebud pause to drink, Joe scanned the canyon. The sun had climbed halfway up the sky but still cast long shadows on the steep terrain. Pines and firs clung to the ragged canyon walls among broken rock. The misty air started about a mile further up. Still no clue to its origin and no scent of smoke; Rosebud seemed unconcerned. What little breeze touched Joe came from the west. Yet the haze appeared stationary.

Joe shrugged and urged Rosebud into the brush. Maybe the mist was just the result of some odd heat inversion. He’d heard something about that on a recent weather report. And these high elevation valleys did have their own weather.

Joe soon found himself ducking low tree branches and dodging heavy brush as Rosebud forced her way along the faint trail into increasingly larger and denser stretches of underbrush and pines.

After a half mile, the temperature dropped and the air thickened into a heavy fog obscuring all but the nearest trees. Joe nudged a reluctant Rosebud forward, blind to anything further away than a few yards.

After a few minutes, the air cleared and they entered a small glade. He let Rosebud slow to a halt. Thick duff covered the ground but showed no impression of a shod hoof. Around them, towering pines, interspersed with an occasional oak, blocked out any view of the mountains. An occasional birdcall pierced the low background drone of insects. Unease crawled over his skin. He couldn’t identify the bird or the insect sounds. And oaks? There weren’t supposed to be any oaks up here. The hair on the back of his neck stirred as Rosebud sidled nervously, her ears flicking.

A scream rent the air. Human or animal? He freed the rifle and chambered a shell. Rosebud fidgeted. The insect noise ceased. He jerked his head around at the sound of something smashing through the low undergrowth to his right. A young girl exploded from behind one of the pines into the open area just yards from Joe.

Looking behind her, she almost ran into Rosebud, who whinnied and shied. The girl turned and froze, her mouth open but silent. She wore a one-piece leather dress and was shoeless, her skin covered with bleeding scratches. Joe could only stare as Rosebud skittered back a step, snorting.

Then a second figure—a deeply tanned man wearing a leather loincloth and holding a massive club—emerged from the brush and stopped, eyes narrowing in confusion at Joe and Rosebud. Joe watched the man, hearing the girl’s footsteps as she fled around Rosebud and into the brush behind Joe.

The man lunged, his club swinging in a high arc toward Rosebud.

Joe felt his arm bring up the rifle. Felt the finger tighten. With the club inches away, he heard the blast.

Surprise registered in the man’s upturned eyes. The club fell, grazing Rosebud. The horse reared, seized the bit and, as Joe struggled to remain seated, bolted.

Joe hung on, but they were hundreds of yards away from the attack site before he fought Rosebud to a stop. He rubbed his hand along her neck, avoiding the scratches that oozed blood. “Easy girl,” he murmured in a low voice.

Joe chambered another shell and listened. All was quiet. No birdcalls, even the bugs were silent.

He urged the nervous horse back through the broken vegetation. Emerging once more into the clearing, he saw the man lying motionless, face upwards, staring into nothing. A small hole was centered in his chest, the blood already coagulating. A chill swept through Joe’s body; he had killed the man.

No sign of the little girl. Fighting nausea, Joe urged Rosebud closer. The dead man was shorter than Joe by a couple inches, maybe five foot nine. White paint, perhaps clay or ashes, outlined his face. Near his outstretched hand lay a wooded club embedded with flakes of worked chert. Joe shuddered and looked around for the girl. Nothing but her footprints.

Then Joe heard a faint scream in the distance, from the direction the girl and her pursuer had appeared. What the hell was going on? Should he head back to the ranch for help? But the image of the girl’s terrified face flashed through his thoughts. Clutching the rifle with a white knuckled fist, Joe urged the snorting Rosebud back along the girl’s path.

Within yards, the broken branches and trodden grass turned into a well-used path. More distant screams rent the air. Joe urged Rosebud into a trot. In a few minutes, they crossed a small stream and broke out of the forest. He reined in Rosebud and froze at the sight of an impossible scene.

A dozen long, bark-covered huts stood at his end of a brightly flowered meadow. At the opposite end was a low square shaped mound. Around the meadow, stands of maples climbed the rolling hills that faded into the horizon.

Shit, he was in his dream.

Not more than fifty yards away, bodies lay among the brightly colored flowers. Over these bodies stood half a dozen men—warriors?—holding bloodied clubs and staring at Joe. The screams were from those on the ground. Beyond them, another group of men herded a small group of crying children.

One of the closer men fitted a long dart to an atlatl.

Joe stared. Had he stumbled on a movie set? Some prehistoric conflict complete with spear throwers?

The man whipped the dart forward and Joe heard the whistle of the long thin shaft as it passed between Rosebud and his head. Shit. Joe raised the rifle and fired. Rosebud shied at the echoing gunshot.

The man clutched his upper arm and added his scream to those of the wounded on the ground. This broke the surprise of the nearby warriors, and they formed a loose line. Behind them, the second group of warriors drove the children toward the opposite side of the clearing. A young girl fell and one of the men picked her up.

“Dammit!” Joe screamed to everyone and no one. Eyes on the struggling girl, he levered another shell under the hammer and urged Rosebud to the right, hoping to outflank the line of warriors.

The man with the child dropped his catch. He glanced at Joe then looked down at the girl. He raised his club.

Joe fired, Rosebud shuddering under him.

The man jerked, dropped the club, and staggered backwards. One of the closer warriors loosed another dart.

Joe saw him and started to turn Rosebud, but too late. He heard a dull thud and the mare reared. Joe dropped the rifle and clawed at the saddle horn. Then Rosebud turned and broke into a panicked run. Joe held on as his mount tore through the brush back the way they had come.

After a mile or so, weariness dissipated Rosebud’s panic and Joe was able to calm her down to a walk and, after a few more minutes, to a stop. He whispered in a calm voice that clashed with his pounding heart as he dismounted and inspected the wound in her flank. The scabbard had taken most of the impact, leaving the point and an inch of the broken shaft protruding from the bleeding wound. Joe removed the scabbard and tied it to the saddle horn. Then he tied Rosebud to a nearby tree with her heavy braided halter, took a deep breath, and yanked out the shallowly embedded dart point. Rosebud screamed, her eyes white, and reared against the rope. Joe grabbed it and, dancing clear of her pawing hooves, hung on for several minutes until the shuddering animal recovered.

Joe wrapped the point in his kerchief as his mind raced. He could hear the murmur of Red Creek. The air was clear. On either side of the valley, mountains rose and peaked into white tips. He thought of the low hills that nestled the broad clearing of the village. Had he gone nuts? If he had, what about the bloodied horse? And the man he’d killed?

With stomach churning, Joe pocketed the point and started walking Rosebud back to the ranch.

[end of Chapter One]

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