Near the Elk River
He awoke lying on a bed, covered in the softness of furs and blankets. His side throbbed with pain, as did his arm, as did his head. He thought of his family, and the emotions of the dream swept over him. This time he did not try to keep the tears at bay, but weeping only made his head hurt more. It swam and pounded. Pain sliced his arm at every move. His side…his side…
Slowly, it came back to him. A battle, the sweet dust of gunsmoke, the wild ululation of Cheyenne soldiers riding into heavy fire. The memory of bright sunshine, hard spears of light glinting off the barrels of the cannon, the concussions as he fired shells at the walls of the Army fort, the marigolds of fire as they hit their marks. And then, nothing; nothing except the pain. Breathing through the pain, talking through it. Riding through it. Riding home to see Mouse Road. Riding to get home.
Home? he wondered. Home?
Thinking of his dream and the family farm in Michigan Territory, he rolled over on his back and opened his eyes a crack. His vision was still smeared and blurry, but it was good enough to show that he was not back home in Monroe. He was in a lodge, the firelight dim. Up through the smokehole, the sky showed him a deep purple, but gave no clue whether it was dawn or dusk. He heard the tick and snap of coals dying in the firepit. He blinked. It hurt, but it helped to clear his vision, so he blinked again. He saw the walls of the lodge in the dim light, saw a familiar knife hanging from a lodgepole.
My lodge. My home.
He turned his head to look at the fire and was jolted wide-awake. His heart stumbled and thudded in his aching chest and he blinked again in spite of the pain.
Two men sat across the fire from him, their skin so black it swallowed up the light. Blacker than any Negro, George could tell that they were not colored men.
Their hair was straight, shiny-black, and hung long and loose down their backs. Their features were those of the People: broad of brow, long of face, with straight noses and almond-shaped eyes. Like enough to be twins, they sat cross-legged on the guest’s side of the hearth, silent, staring into the orange light of the fire’s dying coals. They wore fringed leggings, beaded moccasins, and decorated breechclouts, but remained barechested. On their chests—so black—were white circles representing hail, and on their arms were the jagged yellow lines of lightning. The right arm of one bore a shiny scar where a lightning bolt should have been.
They were not Negroes. If George’s guess was right, they were not even men. He had seen them before, years ago it seemed, and only from a distance. He had described them to Stands Tall in Timber, the People’s spiritual leader. As George stared at his two guests, the holy man’s response echoed in his mind.
I think the Thunder Beings have taken an interest in you.
Thunder Beings. Creatures from the Cheyenne spirit world. As he slowly forced himself up into a sitting position, George considered the possibility that the old chief had been right. He considered, too, that he might still be dreaming—which seemed far more likely—but decided that it made no difference. They were here.
“Haaahe,” he said in greeting. “Welcome to my home.”
They smiled—sudden white teeth in dark faces—and glanced up briefly before looking back to the fire in polite though wordless response. Then, with the sign language common throughout the Alliance, the one on the right—the one with the scar on his arm—asked after his health.
“I am doing better,” George said.
Good, the other signed, and then they both stood.
“Wait,” George said, holding up a hand. “Is that all you came for? To see how I am feeling?”
Yes, the one signed.
“But…why?” George asked. “Why are you care about me?”
The two spirit men looked puzzled by the question. They sat down again by the fire. You are One Who Flies, the first one signed. You rode the cloud-that-fell.
George remembered his trip in the experimental airship and the storm that caused it to crash. “That ‘cloud’ fell because you brought it down,” he said. “You brought it down, and you’ve been influencing the course of my life ever since, haven’t you?”
Yes. Of course.
George felt an urgency, a pressure of events, and wondered again if this was a dream. “Is it over, now?” he asked. “Are you done with me?”
“Why not? What’s so important that you keep me from living my own life?”
The dark men conferred with one another in silence. What do you want that you do not have? the first one signed.
George thought for a moment, his head swimming with weakness, pain, and the odd dreaminess of the encounter. The men across the fire from him sat patiently, hands on their knees, waiting for his reply.
What do I want? he asked himself, and as soon as the question was formed, he knew. The images from his dream made it plain.
“I want my family.”
Family, signed the other one, and pointed toward the lodgeskin wall and the camp that lay beyond it. Your family is here.
“Yes,” George said quietly, thinking of his neighbors and friends. He recalled his ride home after the battle, pushing himself to continue regardless of his injuries and his fear of death. He remembered the one thing he wanted to see before he died: Mouse Road’s smile. And when he did, its sweetness had filled him. “Yes, I have a family of a sort here,” he said. “But there is another family I left behind. I want to see them. I want to make peace with my father.”
Long Hair, the first one signed. Chief of the Horse Nations.
“Long Hair,” George agreed, embarrassed that even in the spirit world his father’s reputation rode before him. “But that is what I want,” he said, feeling his resolve solidify. “I have been your instrument for years and now I want something in return.”
You have nothing? the other one signed, pointing to the doorflap.
“One Who Flies?” came a voice from outside. The doorflap opened and Mouse Road looked inside. “What are you doing up?” she said. She stepped into the lodge, a burden of firewood on her back. Outside, the sky had lightened with the coming dawn, and snow had begun to fall.
George looked at the two dark men as she stepped into the family side of the lodge. He saw them smile as they watched her put her load of firewood near the lodgeskin wall. From the hearthside she took the last of the dry wood and put it on the tired coals.
“I thought I heard you talking,” she said as she tended to the fire. “Who were you talking to?”
George looked again at the dark men across the crackling fire. Family, the first one signed, and pointed at Mouse Road. He smiled at George.
The two men stood. The first one stepped forward into the hearthpit. The fire’s rising heat caught him like a feather, a leaf, and he rose up through the smokehole. The other one smiled. Family is important, he signed as he, too, stepped forward to float skyward with the smoke.
“One Who Flies?” Mouse Road asked. “Are you all right?”
George blinked, feeling all his weakness and pain begin to return. “Yes,” he said. “I am just tired.”
“Who were you talking to?”
“No one,” he said as he lay back down into his bed of furs. Mouse Road glanced at him, concern overcoming her manners. “Truly,” he said and smiled to assuage her fears. “I am well.”
She laughed. “You are not well,” she said. “But, I am glad to see you are feeling better. Mother is making fry-bread. Are you feeling well enough to eat?”
He tried to say that he was, but he felt himself drifting away. Am I dreaming still? he wondered. Mouse Road came over to him, and his vision was filled with the beauty of her face.
“Maybe later,” she said as she pulled the covers over him. He felt her hand on his cheek, and then, as warmth filled him once more, he slept.