FIND THE LIGHTNING
The white stallion stood atop a mesa, mane and tail blown by the wind. Below, a herd of wild horses grazed along a narrow, winding river. Apache wickiups rose in the distance, spirals of smoke rising from a number of cook fires.
For years, he had wandered from the Great Plains to the Llano to the Dragoon Mountains. He was known to all the People. Among the Apache, he was known as the ghost horse because of his pale color. The Cheyenne and the Lakota called him a spirit horse because he could traverse the shadowy road between the past and the present, but he preferred to make his home in the past, where the air was still clean and the rivers ran clear.
He was Relámpago and he belonged to no one.
A gentle breeze stirred the leaves of the trees, carrying with it a voice from the present. A voice only the stallion could hear.That of a young woman who felt she'd been born in the wrong century. Perhaps he could help.
With a toss of his head, the stallion began to run, mane and tail flying in the wind as he raced swiftly over the rolling hills. It was not an Apache warrior that needed saving this time. Or a young woman contemplating suicide. Or a woman looking for love in all the wrong places.
But a woman living in the future who yearned for a life in the past.
Rusty Ryan was certain she had been born, not only in the wrong century, but in the wrong ethnic group. As far back as she could remember, she had wanted to be an Indian. A tom boy to her core, when she was younger, she had loved playing cowboys and Indians with her brother and his friends - as long as she could be the Indian.
In high school, while her girlfriends watched chick flicks and drooled over Chris Pratt, she lost herself in old westerns starring John Wayne.
In college, while her best friend, Donna, dreamed of being a star on a reality show, Rusty dreamed of living on a ranch in Montana and raising horses. Sadly, there wasn’t much need for an interior decorator in the wilds of the Big Sky country. And, as much as she fantasized about ranch life, all she really knew about it was what she had seen in movies. She was woefully ignorant about cattle, although she thought their big brown eyes were pretty. She had no experience with horses, or branding, or cooking on a wood stove.
Now, sprawled on the sofa watching John Wayne in “Hondo” she imagined living on a small ranch in the heart of Apache country, waiting for her worthless husband to come home while she fell in love with a tall, handsome man of the West.
Tomorrow, she thought. Tomorrow was Saturday and she was going to drive up to Fenton’s Stable and learn to ride.
Rusty stared at the horse that had been chosen for her. It was a non-descript brown with a short mane and Xx tail. “Don’t you have something…prettier?”
“He’s our best beginner horse,” her instructor said. “Calm, reliable. Got a nice easy gait. Pretty much bomb proof.”
“Bomb proof?” Rusty exclaimed.
“It means nothing bothers him. Come on, I’ll give you a leg up and we’ll see how you do.”
Taking her lower lip between her teeth, Rusty put her foot in the stirrup and pulled herself into the saddle. The horse wasn’t very tall, but it suddenly looked like a long way down. Her instructor, Todd, showed her how to hold the reins, then led her into a corral.
For the next half hour, she learned how to guide the horse, how to make him stop, go, and backup. During the second half-hour, she discovered how uncomfortable trotting was if you didn’t sit the right way, how to change leads, and how to unsaddle and saddle the horse.
“Not bad,” Todd remarked as they walked back to the barn. “I think you’ve got promise. Next week we’ll put up on Sugar.”
Driving home, Rusty felt pretty good about the lesson. She had expected to have a sore bum after an hour in the saddle, but it was her thighs and shoulders that ached.
After half-a-dozen lessons, she graduated to a pretty white mare with a little more get up and go and Todd decided she was ready to go trail riding. Rusty could hardly wait. Wearing a new Western shirt, jeans, boots, and hat, she looked and felt like a real cowgirl.
Filled with excitement, she followed Todd along a narrow, tree-lined trail. The day was warm but not hot. Fluffy marshmallow clouds drifted across an azure sky. When a bird darted from a tree, spooking her horse, Rusty laughed, then let out a squeal as her mount lined out in a dead run.
She heard Todd scream at her, but she couldn’t make out his words. Merciful heavens, she was going to die!
The mare ran and ran, leaving the trail, cutting through a stand of timber. A fence loomed ahead. Rusty felt Sugar bunch beneath her, let out a startled cry as she tumbled over the horse’s rump.
Closed her eyes as the ground rose up to meet her.
Rusty opened her eyes. Blinked. And blinked again, surprised that she was still alive. She ran her hands over her legs, her arms, her head. Nothing seemed to be broken.
Pushing into a sitting position, she looked around for her horse, felt her eyes grow wide when one trotted toward her. It was white, only it wasn’t Sugar. And definitely not a mare, but a magnificent white stallion with a flowing mane and tail, and what looked like a black lightning bolt on one flank.
Hardly seeming to touch the ground, the stallion trotted toward her. Lowered its head. Went to its knees.
Rusty rose cautiously to her feet. There was no mistaking the horse’s invitation to climb aboard. But did she have the nerve to accept?
She looked around for her hat, which had gone flying when she did, but it was nowhere to be seen. Muttering, “Oh, well,” she took a deep breath and climbed onto the stallion’s back.
As soon as she was settled, the horse regained its feet, shook its head, and trotted off.
Rusty clung to the horse’s mane. She frowned as the world was swallowed up in a mist that grew darker, thicker, until she couldn’t see anything. Fear spread its tentacles through her. Had she hit her head harder than she thought? Was she going blind? She shook the thought away. Maybe she was unconscious and dreaming.
She lost track of time as she traveled through the mist, holding tight with all her might to the stallion’s mane for fear of falling into nothingness.
Just when she thought the horse was going to go on forever, it slowed and came to a stop.
The mist evaporated. She sighed with relief as her vision cleared. Now, all she had to do was find her way back to Fenton’s.
Jay Soaring Hawk cussed a blue streak as he raked his spurs along the bronc’s sides. He had been trying to break the damn mustang for almost two weeks to no avail. Standing an inch or so over sixteen hands, the buckskin was the biggest, most beautiful horse he had ever seen. And the most stubborn. The bronc had thrown him near a dozen times that day alone and Jay had the bumps and bruises to prove it. If the horse hadn’t had such great conformation, he would have gelded him after the second day.
He bailed out of the saddle when the stud started to roll.
“Damn outlaw!” Slapping his hat against his thigh, Jay stalked out of the corral, then ambled up to the house, grimacing as he opened the door and stepped inside. The place needed a coat of paint, he mused, but, more that that, it needed a woman’s touch, someone to fix him a decent meal, do his laundry once in a while, maybe put up some curtains.
Or maybe he should just forget about ranching, go back to the rez, and move in with his old man. Maybe he’d been a fool to try to live like a white man. The people in town didn’t want anything to do with Blue Crane’s half-breed son. At least the Lakota liked and respected him. He could raise horses on the rez and sell them to the Army…
What the hell? He looked out the open door, frowned as the sound of hoof beats drew closer. Stepping out onto the front porch, he lifted one had to shade his eyes. He blinked, then blinked again as a white horse and rider appeared in the distance.
“Relámpago.” The word whispered past Jay’s lips as the stallion drew closer. His grandfather had told him stories of the famous Spirit Horse of the Lakota. It was said the stallion traveled effortlessly between worlds. Jay squinted against the sun. Was that a woman on the stud’s back?
He shook his head. What the hell was a woman -- a white woman! -- doing riding alone out here? And on Relámpago, no less! Hell, every warrior he’d ever met dreamed of one day seeing the stallion.
Relampago slowed to a walk, then came to a halt a few yards from the porch.
Jay’s gaze ran over the woman. Her skin was smooth and unblemished. Gently arched brows rose above bright green eyes. Her plaid shirt and jeans covered a curvy figure. Long blonde hair fell over slim shoulders. Both hands were tightly wrapped in the stud’s mane.
Rusty stared at the man. Had someone asked her to describe her idea of male perfection, he would fit the image to a tee. He was Indian, of that there could be no doubt. Long black hair, dark eyes, copper-hued skin, broad shoulders, long, long legs. His clothes -- dark blue shirt, tan pants, scarred boots -- were covered with dust.
“Can I help you?” His deep voice sent a shiver down her spine.
“I’m afraid I’m hopelessly lost. Could you please tell me how to get back to Fenton’s?”
“Fenton’s?” He frowned. “Nobody by that name in these parts.”
“But…are you sure? I just came from there.”
“Where’d you get that stud?”
“I was out riding and my horse threw me. I hit my head and when I came to, this horse was there.”
Jay grunted softly. Was she from the past, he wondered, or the future. “What year were you born?”
“What?” Did he think she had a concussion? “Nineteen ninety-eight. In New York City.”
He shook his head, then smiled. So, the stories about the stallion were true. “Hell’s fire,” he muttered, “you’re a long way from home.”
“What do you mean?”
“I reckon this will come as quite a surprise, but it’s eighteen seventy-one.”
The woman stared at him, her face going pale with shock and disbelief as she toppled from the horse.
Sprinting forward, Jay caught her in his arms. Murmuring, “Nineteen ninety-eight,” he carried her into the house. After settling her on the couch, he went outside to get another look at Relampago.
Rusty opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling. She’d had some weird dreams in her time, but nothing like the last one. She rarely remembered her dreams, but this one was an exception, mainly because of the beautiful white stallion and the hunky cowboy who had told her, in all seriousness, that she was in the late eighteen hundreds…
She frowned at the unfamiliar beamed ceiling overhead. Closed her eyes and opened them again. Fighting a sudden wave of panic, she sat up, her gaze darting around the room. Whitewashed walls. A stone fireplace. Plank floors. A single window. There was no lock on the front door, but an old-fashioned cross-bar. She spied a table and two chairs through the open doorway to her right, a bed covered with a patchwork quilt in the room on left. The words eighteen seventy-one whispered through the back of her mind.
Impossible! She was still dreaming, that was all.
Scrambling to her feet, she opened the front door and stepped out onto a wide, wooden veranda. There were corrals and a barn in the distance. Cattle dotted the hillsides. Chickens scratched in the dirt near the porch.
But it was the white stallion who held her attention. It stood a few feet away, its head down while the cowboy scratched its ears.
“It’s just a dream!” she whispered, panic rising with every passing moment. “It just has to be!”
Lifting its head, the stallion looked at her and whinnied softly, then turned and trotted away.
“Stop him!” Rusty hollered. “Don’t let him get away!”
But it was too late. With a swish of its tail, the stallion broke into a run, heading for the timbered hills beyond.
When the stallion disappeared from sight, the cowboy turned to face her. “Looks like you’re going to be here for awhile.”
Rusty sighed, thinking he didn’t look very happy about it. But then, neither was she.
Sitting on the leather couch, Rusty glanced around the living room again. It looked pretty much like the cabins seen in old Westerns. “So, where am I? I don’t mean the year, I mean, where?”
Dakota Territory, 1871. Too early for Custer to find gold in the Black Hills. Five years until the Battle at Little Big Horn. She shook her head. She had to be dreaming!
“Why did that horse bring me here?”
Jay shrugged. “How should I know?”
“But…it’s impossible to travel through time! Stop laughing!”
“Lady, I’d say your being here proves that it’s very possible.”
Rusty glared at him. “But…I…” She shook her head. “You didn’t seem at all shocked to see that horse. Or to learn that I ’m from -- I can’t believe I’m saying this -- from the future.”
“I’m not shocked. Surprised, maybe. I grew up on stories of Relampago but until today, I’d never actually seen him. Or met anyone who traveled the spirit path.”
“There are stories about him? That horse?”
Jay nodded. “All the tribes know about him. The People call him a Ghost Horse, or a Spirit Horse, because he travels the spirit path between worlds.”
“He goes to other planets?”
“No. Just back and forth from the past to the future, or the future to the past.”
“So, why did he bring me here?”
“Like I said, I don’t know. Don’t you?”
Rusty frowned. Could it be…? All her life she had dreamed of living on a ranch in the Old West. And now she was here. She shook her head in disbelief. How could some Indian horse know what she wanted? It was incredible. Impossible. And yet, here she was, on a ranch in Dakota Territory in eighteen seventy-one.
“What do I do now?” Agitated, she jumped up and began to pace the floor. “Is the horse coming back? Where am I going to stay until he does? What if he never comes back?”
“Whoa, girl, slow down. From everything I know about Relampago, he brought you here for a reason…” Jay paused. He had been wishing for a woman’s touch. Maybe Relampago had brought her here for him. Probably best not to mention that. “As for how long you’ll be here…” He shrugged. “But if need a place to stay, I reckon you’d best stay here until Relampago comes back.”
“Here?” She stared at him. “I can’t stay here. I don’t even know you.”
“Stay or go. I reckon that’s up to you.”
Feeling like a deflated balloon, Rusty sank down on the couch. He was right, she thought. She had wanted to live in the real West her whole life and now she was here. She had no idea how long this little adventure would last -- couldn’t really believe it was happening. But if it was, why not make the best of it? Besides, what if she left here and the horse couldn’t find her again?
“If you haven’t changed your mind, I accept your offer of hospitality, Mr…” She paused. “I don’t even know your name.”
“Jay Soaring Hawk.” Seeing her eyes widen, he said, “That’s right, I’m Lakota on my mother’s side. Is that a problem?”
Rusty felt her cheeks grow warm as she shook her head. How could she tell him she had always been fascinated by Indians, especially the Lakota?
“Won’t hurt my feelings none if you change your mind,” he said flatly. “Lots of white folks, women especially, don’t want anything to do with me.”
Rusty couldn’t imagine that. He was tall and broad-shouldered and amazingly handsome. But she was looking at him through a twenty-first century lens, she mused. The people of this time -- accustomed to raids and massacres -- viewed Indians in a far different light.
Suddenly overwhelmed with the events of the last hour, she sat back and closed her eyes. “If this isn’t a dream, what do we do now?”