Three Brand-New Stories...
by Madeline Baker
Pregnant and alone on the Colorado prairie, Rebecca Hathaway's prayers were answered - by rugged Wolf Dreamer. Will her search for home and family lead them to a new life together
She stood on the edge of a high mountain meadow, hiding behind a tree, captivated by the sight of a tall copper-skinned man dancing in the cool silver glow of a full moon, his waist-length hair his only covering. He chanted softly as he danced, his voice low, the words foreign to her ears, his steps graceful, elegant, intricate. She had watched him dance before. Always the same steps, always the same chant. He danced for what seemed like hours, untiring, his voice lifted toward heaven in what she was certain was a prayer.
She watched until her eyelids grew heavy and she sank down to the ground.
It was then that the mist came, rising from the earth, enveloping the dancer in a sparkling golden brown haze.
It was then, between one breath and the next, that the miracle occurred. Copper-hued skin became thick black fur, his body changed, transformed, until the man was gone and in his place stood a huge wolf with golden brown eyes. Lifting his head, he sniffed the air and then hr turned, ever so slowly, toward her hiding place.
Startled, frightened beyond words, she leaped to her feet and began to run, her heart pounding, her pulse racing.
He was behind her. She knew it without looking, knew if she dared glance over her shoulder, she would see the wolf chasing her, gaining on her. She ran and ran. Ran until her sides ached, until her legs were weak and she couldn't run any more. With a sob, she fell face down in the tall grass, her heart roaring like thunder in her ears as she felt the wolf’s hot breath blow across her cheek like the hot breath of a desert wind. She tried to tell herself there was nothing to fear, that wolves did not attack humans, but she knew, deep in her heart, that his teeth would soon rend her flesh.
She opened her mouth to scream….
And that was when she always woke up.
He watched her as he did every day, drawn to her, to this place, without knowing why. Crouched behind a screen of tangled vines and wild blackberry bushes, he watched the white woman make her way down to the river. Her name was Rebecca Hathaway and she came here each day just before dusk. Sometimes she swam in the slow current, sometimes she just sat on the grassy bank and gazed into the clear water, her expression pensive, often sad.
He had watched her off and on since she had come here five summers ago as a new bride. He had seen her eyes light with joy as she watched a brown and white calf struggle to take its first step, heard her laughter as she danced in the rain, listened to her sing, her voice soft and sweet, as she worked in the vegetable garden that grew behind the house.
He had watched her belly grow round with child, had listened to her tears when she stood over her husband’s grave. He did not know why the man had died and though it grieved him to see her in tears, he was pleased that she no longer shared her bed or her body with another.
This evening she had again come down to the river to bathe. A low growl rose in his throat as she stripped off her dress and petticoat and stepped into the water.
It pleased him to watch her.
It pained him to watch her.
The setting sun caressed her skin, making it glow like pale gold. Her eyes were the bright green of new grass in the springtime. Her hair, which was the color of the rich dark red earth of his homeland, caught the fading light, emphasizing the red highlights, turning the long silky strands to burnished copper.
She reached for the chunk of homemade hard yellow soap and began to wash. The soap smelled of flowers. The lather slid down her arms, down the valley between her breasts. Watching her, he was sorely tempted to join her there in the river, to feel her skin against his own, to lick the drops of water sliding down her slender neck and rounded belly…
He lifted his head and sniffed the wind, then slowly eased back into the shadows, his nostrils filling with the stink of unwashed bodies.
Strangers were coming.
* * *
Rebecca’s first warning that she was no longer alone was the jangle of horse harness, a sound she would forever associate with the day her husband had been killed, and the Army deserters who had killed him. Fear rose up within her, hot and swift and overpowering.
Scrambling out of the water, she grabbed her clothes and ran for the house, her heart pounding with fear. Fear for her own life. Fear for the life of her unborn child.
She screamed as three men on horseback rode into view, blocking her path.
Breathless, she stared up at them, covering her nudity as best she could with her crumpled dress and petticoat.
One of the men crossed his arms on the pommel of his saddle and leaned forward. He leered down at her, exposing a mouthful of crooked, yellow teeth.
The second man nudged his horse up beside her and dragged a hand through her wet hair. He was young, even younger than she was, with wavy brown hair and blue eyes. She thought he might help her, until he smiled. It was a cold, cruel smile.
The third man laughed as he dismounted. It was a sound filled with menace, not humor. “Told you, I did, that this would be our lucky day.”
Rebecca shook her head and backed away. “No. Don’t.” She placed her arm over her swollen belly in an age old gesture of protection. “Please.”
“I like a woman what says please,” the third man said. He winked at his companions, then reached out to grab her arm.
With a strangled cry, Rebecca twisted out of his grasp. Throwing her dress and petticoat in his face, she turned and began to run back toward the river. And even as she ran, she knew she would never get away. She heard one of the men shout, heard the sound of running feet behind her as all three men gave chase.
Please, oh, please, oh, please…
The cry echoed silently in her mind as she raced toward the river. A large flat rock jutted out over the deepest part of the water. If she could just make it to the rock…it would all be over. She would hurl herself into the river. Better to drown than be at the mercy of these barbarians.
I’m sorry, so sorry…Unspoken words, meant for her unborn child.
She wasn’t going to make it. She could feel the earth vibrate beneath her bare feet as the three men drew closer. Almost, she could feel their breath on her back…
She screamed as another man burst out of the cover of the trees. They had her surrounded!
Images planted themselves in her mind – lean copper-hued flesh, long black hair, piercing golden brown eyes.
In movements that were almost too fast for the eye to follow, he nocked an arrow to his bow and let it fly. Once, twice, and two of the men chasing her were dead. The last man managed to fire his rifle before her rescuer let a third arrow fly. With a sharp cry of pain, the man fell backward to lie motionless in the dirt. For a moment, she stared at the bodies, astonished, as always, at how quickly lives could be snuffed out.
Taking a deep breath, she turned around to thank the man who had come to her rescue, but he was gone, leaving nothing behind but a faint trail of blood. Had he been wounded? Was he dead, too?
Concern for his welfare overcame her fear of what she might find and she followed the blood droplets until they disappeared.
It was only when she turned for home that she remembered that she was naked. Retracing her footsteps, she picked up her dress. She shook out the dirt before slipping it over her head, then stepped into her petticoat, smoothed her skirts, and took a deep breath. She would have to dispose of the bodies. But how? And where?
Walking up the path to the house, she was surprised to see the horses of the three men gathered in the yard. They had run away when the fighting started; now they were back, standing close together, ears twitching as they watched her.
Speaking softly, she walked toward them. Her own horse had died not long ago. Taking up the reins of the three horses, she led them into the small corral behind the house. The pen was in need of repair, but it was the only one she had. One of horses, a pretty little bay with a star on its forehead, nuzzled her arm as she removed the saddle. She stood there a moment, scratching the bay’s ears. It calmed her somehow, and for a few minutes it kept her from thinking of what had almost happened.
Leading the bay out of the corral, she closed the gate. Going to the barn, she found a shovel and a pair of heavy work gloves. She would bury the bodies in the woods where the dirt was soft, where she could cover the graves with pine needles and deadfall.
The bay shied at the scent of blood and death, but Rebecca finally coaxed the mare to drag the bodies into the woods, one by one.
It was dark by the time she managed to dig a grave large enough for all three of the men. She covered the shallow hole with pine needles and branches and rocks, then stood back, her hands resting on her belly. She knew she should offer a prayer for their souls, but she simply couldn’t do it. Rot in the Hell, she thought. I’ve buried you, and that’s enough.
Later, lying in her lonely bed, her back and shoulders aching, she wondered what had happened to the mysterious man who had saved her life.
* * *
He crawled toward the river on his hands and knees. His body burned with fever; the bullet lodged in his side throbbed with every movement, every breath. He had tried to remove it with his knife, but to no avail. It was lodged under a rib and he hadn’t been able to pry it out.
He sighed as he slid into the water. It felt like winter rain against his heated skin. He drank deeply, hoping to cool the fire raging within him, clawed at the shore as his empty belly rebelled and he began to vomit up the cold water.
He felt a faint vibration in the earth beneath his hands, looked up to see the woman walking toward him. He crawled out of the river, head hanging as he tried to gather his strength to rise, to run, but his legs refused to hold him and he pitched forward, a wave of dizziness sucking him down, down, into darkness…
THE LIGHTNING SERIES
THE RECKLESS SERIES