Across the Sweet Grass Hills
By Gail L. Jenner
The old woman came to him in sleep, her dark eyes round and large, white eyebrows a stripe across her forehead. From the yawning black hole of her mouth came a haunting cry that curled up through the darkness like a thin thread of smoke. Another cry answered it.
The man shivered as the sounds whirled around him, rising higher and higher. He wanted to cover his ears, but couldn't move his hands. Instead he closed his eyes, trying to stop the pain in his head, but there was no way to shut it out. He wanted to shout at the old woman, but his throat was dry and his words transparent. The woman's black turtle eyes closed suddenly and her mouth snapped shut. Then she glided away, strands of long gray hair billowing about her like a cloud, the ends twirling like ribbons around her beaded white buckskin dress. Beyond, blue shadows weaved back and forth.
He reached out, hoping to capture the old woman and draw her back. What secret did she hide? What warning did she bring? But as quickly as she had appeared, the old woman vanished. A strange, chilling emptiness descended upon him.
Red Eagle sat up slowly, his heart thumping, his hands damp. He looked around, but saw only the dying embers of the cooking fire and the shadowy darkness of a night when the moon is hiding.
"Tomorrow," he said out loud, addressing his restless spirit. "I must find Crying Wind." Surely his uncle would know why the old woman wept.
CHAPTER 1 Montana Territory, September 1869
Liza stirred restlessly, trying to make herself more comfortable. Was she home in her own bed? She opened her eyes, then closed them, remembering where she was. She drew the wool blanket up to her chin, frowning. Her dreams had deceived again. St. Louis was a lifetime away. She crawled out from under the blankets and took a deep breath, pushing aside the tears that threatened to weaken her spirit. She had to remain strong, or the fear that followed like a shadow might overwhelm her.
Stepping carefully over the rocky soil, Liza felt her way to the fire, spreading her hands out over the glowing coals. Glancing up at the moonless sky, handfuls of stars glittered like fool's gold, and she found herself wondering if this journey wasn't just a fool's dream. If only she'd remained in St. Louis. Perhaps, if she'd said no to Father, he would have reconsidered. He might have changed his mind altogether, and then, Mother --
Mother would be alive, even now...
That instant Liza felt, rather than heard, a faint rustle. It tickled her spine like the brush of a feather. Was that the distant pounding of hooves? She drew herself up and peered into the night, but it was impossible to see past the sleeping figures of her father and Giles. The scout, a giant of a man, turned and mumbled something unintelligible.
Liza relaxed. It had probably been nothing. Just the ghosts that seemed to haunt prairie nights. She chided herself: what had happened to her nerves, anyway? Father had once declared that his daughter, Elizabeth Ralston, had more grit than her two brothers combined.
There was a second strange rustle, and it seemed to be moving closer. Liza clasped a hand to her mouth. She would not scream. Falling to her knees, the darkness covered her like a black cloud; hopefully it would shield her from being spotted. Pulling up her petticoats, she crawled toward her father, shins scraping against spiny brambles and rough sod.
Before she could rouse him, however, a flurry of howls split the night. Liza flattened herself against the ground. "Papa!" His dark eyes opened and he pressed a finger to his lips. She nodded and waited, her heart pounding like a hammer. This was no time to weep or grow faint. Her father reached for his rifle.
An arm's distance away, Giles had clambered to his feet and reached for a pistol. Leaning forward to get a second look, his voice was strangely hoarse, his marble eyes bright as he turned and cried, "Run, girl, run! It's savages, sure! Go!"
Liza hesitated, choking back fear as the big man's warning was instantly swallowed up by gunfire. Stunned, she watched Giles drop to the earth like a felled tree, dark red blood spilling where his face had been.
"Dear God," she cried, and her stomach roiled up against her ribs.
"Move, Liza!" her father yelled, his own voice sickly.
She glanced down at the dark drops splattered across her hands in astonishment. You've seen blood before, she scolded herself.
She forced herself to crawl along on her belly until she felt Giles's long-barrelled pistol at her fingertips. The weapon was so big, Liza's hand shook as it wrapped around the barrel and dragged the pistol towards her. She righted it by grasping the butt firmly in both hands, then peered into the darkness as if she could see beyond it. Her hands trembled even more as another round of gunfire exploded.
Perspiration burned her eyes. "Where are they?" she whispered. Her father wheeled on one knee. "Hush!" He leaned forward and brushed at the monstrous weapon in her hands. "Save your shot, Elizabeth, and get out of here!" Another bullet whizzed past them. "Go, Daughter, go!"
"No!" Resolved to stay and fight, she drew the hammer back and this time released it, jerking as the pistol leaped in her hands. She would fight. She had to fight.
Her father's dark eyes pleaded with her. "Hide yourself, Elizabeth. Do it for me. For your mother." Tears clouded her vision. She had not often stood up to her father. "No, I won't leave you."
And then it was over.
Another bullet sung past her and, as if in a dream, she saw her father collapse, his face to the ground, body winding in the dirt like a snake's. She cried out in disbelief............
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