Saturday, February 13, 2016

Chapter 310 Those Who Kill Snakes

Storm spun around, diving for the floor. He had the sensation of swimming through cold maple syrup, time slowing down the way it always did during during the heat of a pitched battle. The white hot sting of a pistol shot sliced across his chest, glancing across his skin and leaving a burning, bleeding slice where it had kissed him in passing. He gasped, forcing himself to sprawl forward onto the floor in a limp heap, and hoped to hell he was bleeding enough to convince Collins he was injured far worse than he was.
Ah, the hell did I let this happen? Marda! He fought to control his breathing, to ignore the burning sting of the bullet. I’ll tell you how you let it happen, you stupid were focused on one thing and one thing only. Finding Fiona. You can't find her if you're dead. Idiot!

Scarcliff hadn't moved. He had gone down hard and stayed down. He’s not faking it. He might be dead. He probably is dead. Balls!

The sound of gunfire and shouting outside the cabin seemed miles away, as if the drama unfolding inside the cabin existed in its own separate bubble. Storm supposed maybe it was.

“Tch, tch,” Collins clicked his tongue, and Storm could hear him stalking across the hard-packed dirt of the floor. “Former Captain Alexander Scarcliff,” he muttered derisively. “Should have listened to me when I told you you couldn’t trust these red savages.” Storm squinted out of the corner of his eye, watching Collins jostle the unmoving Captain with his boot. “There’s a reason nobody keeps diamondbacks for pets.” He holstered his pistol and pulled the knife from his belt. “Too bad I didn’t come along in time to stop this one from killing weak, stupid son of a bitch.”

He just holstered his gun. Storm felt the tickling heat of blood pooling underneath him, matting his shirt to his skin. He drew his knife. If Scarcliff’s alive...Collins is going to kill him. And he’s going to set it up to look like it was me.

Storm knew playing opossum was risky. Collins would probably just shoot him again. Peering between almost-closed eyelids, Storm watched the Lieutenant kneel down beside the fallen Captain. Look over here, Collins. I'm not entirely dead. Better come finish me off.  He gave what he hoped was a convincing moan.

Collins instantly turned towards him, abandoning Scarcliff. “Damn it,” he grunted, moving quickly towards Storm.

Fighting the urge to move, Storm willed himself to stay still. One chance...that’s all you’ll get, the Voices whispered in his ear. Let him think he’s in control, and don’t startle him. His skin was crawling, prickling with anticipation of a bullet, a blade, whatever Collins was planning on doing to him. If he wants to make it look like we killed each other...he can’t shoot me in the back. He’s going to have to...

Collins’ hand gripped his shoulder, hauling him onto his back and pressing the barrel of his pistol against his temple. You haven’t heard him pull the hammer...lie still. He remained limp, head lolling and eyes closed. A hand clamped over his mouth, fingers painfully clamping his nose shut. Wait, the Voice of Patience insisted, calming his panic. Wait till he... The cold metal of the pistol drew away, and Collins leaned his weight forward to smother him. The hand on his face grew heavy, focused. Now, Lights the Storm. Storm snapped to action like a released bowstring, snatching his knife from his belt and driving it with both hands into Collin’s startled face as roar of the pistol sent white hot agony exploding through his ear, hot blood and gunpowder spraying in a stinging blast across his skin.  

Thursday, February 11, 2016

We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties

Hey, all, heads up. The little ASUS Transformer I write on has crapped out, thus losing me several hours work today. We have literally just retrieved today's unfinished chapter from it, and there's no way I can finish it up and post it before I turn into a pumpkin. So my plan is to try and have it up by Saturday at the very latest.

Sorry. I hate doing that, but I've been struggling with this damn machine since five o'clock. I'm on the upstairs computer typing this while Jim tries to get the thing online long enough to send the in-progress working copy of The Road Home to Dropbox.

In other news, here's a product review: Don't buy an ASUS Transformer. It's a really awesome machine, especially for writers. Until it isn't.

Anyways, I'm tired and cranky. I'll be back in a day or two.


Thursday, February 4, 2016

Chapter 309:To The Death

Fiona tasted blood. She was wrapped around Hezekiah Stone’s neck and shoulders like a night hag in a fairy tale, her teeth clamped onto his ear so hard she was fairly certain she’d bitten through the cartilage. He jerked forward, wheezing and gasping, nearly throwing her off.

She was glad her hands were bound. She would never have had the strength to keep her wrists around his throat otherwise. She locked her ankles together around his chest and hauled harder on her arms.

Jesse was scrambling back into the fight. She could hear him  shouting and cursing, but everything in the world narrowed down to one, single pinpoint of purpose: don’t let Stone throw me off. Because if I do, he’ll kill Jesse. And then he’ll kill me.

Stone swung an arm backwards, connecting brutally with her head and shaking loose her grip on his ear. She gasped, lights flickering in her vision. And I don’t want to die in this Godforsaken hell-hole and never see Storm again. Stone was clawing at her arms, trying vainly to pull them from neck throat, screaming as she sank her teeth into his whiskered cheek.

Still Water Woman was dragging Eagle Bone away. The brave was bloodied and unconscious, and the sight further inflamed Fiona’s rage. Jesse was shouting at her, his voice frantic. “Fiona! Shitfire, girl, let go before he kills you!.”

Stone was weakening. He desperately reached back and grabbed a handful of her hair, tearing her away from his face. Hot blood ran over her chin as Jesse slammed into Stone, throwing him off balance and bringing him to a knee. The big man grunted, twisting violently as he fell hard onto his side. Pain rocketed up her arm and shoulder as he threw her over his head and slammed her into the dirt and loose rock. The impact froze her breath in her chest, paralyzing her with pain. She curled into an agony-wracked ball in the dirt, gasping and unable to get up or even breathe. Through watering eyes, she saw Jesse, grappling a wheezing, coughing Stone. Blood smeared Jesse’s neck and shoulder and stained his loose-fitting hide shirt. He’s hurt...and he’s half Stone’s size...I have to...oh, bloody hell. She tried rolling to her side, but the fresh explosion of pain flaring in her shoulder stunned her, left her writhing like a speared fish. I think I may have broken my arm...

The men were grappling like lions beside her, desperately fighting over control of Stone’s knife. Jesse was holding onto the man’s wrist with both hands, shoving with all his might, his arms shaking with effort. The moment he tires, it’s all over. Her shocked lungs were convulsing as she fought to get them working again.

“Jesse...” she groaned, knowing she was going to see him killed at any moment. Stone rolled over, throwing Jesse to the ground under him and swinging his knife around. He bellowed with rage and frustration, throwing a massive shoulder into the killing stroke. She sobbed in despair, squeezing her eyes shut as Jesse cried out. “No,” she whispered, begging the night as it rolled over them. Please, no...

“Fiona.” Jesse’s voice was a hoarse rasp.

She opened her eyes to see him struggling to free himself from beneath Stone’s dead weight. He was covered in blood, and holding a badly lacerated forearm in front of him. But he’s alive. And Stone’s not getting up. How...?

Crawling his way to her, he tried to stop his hands from shaking enough to free her from her bonds. “Are you bad hurt?” His voice was trembling and thin. “We gotta find Storm and Mr. Lynch.”

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Chapter 308: Shot in the Dark

Crouching against the cottonwood trunk, Storm desperately fought to keep the tree between himself and the soldier that was shooting at him. He’d come within a hair’s breadth of taking one in the head; the shot had sent a spray of bark shrapnel into his face. He frantically tried to brush the painfully abrasive chips of wood from his eyes. They’ve turned on us. Collins and his men. He’s staging a damn coup. Right now, while we’re in it with bandits. Marde. Marde! He glanced across the widening distance between himself and Eagle Bone, cringing when he saw the brave sprawled in the dirt and being dragged behind cover by his sister. Shit. As much as I dislike the surly bastard, I don’t want him dead.

He was acutely aware that he had no idea how many shots he had left in the cylinder of his pistol, and he had found out the hard way that when he switched to his point-blanket coat at the last minute back in Bridger, his spare cylinders had been in the pocket of the borrowed blue army coat. This was a terrible idea, the Voice of Wisdom hissed into his ear. It sounded angry. All of it. And if you were still working for the army, you’d have ended up in the brig for something so stupid.

He glanced around, vainly looking for a way to get back to Eagle Bone, and where Jesse and a bluecoat were wrestling with one of the bandits, but he was trapped behind the tree by gunfire. Another bullet whizzed past, ricocheting off the stone side of the cabin. They’re trying to kill you, Lights the Storm, the Voices in his head chattered at him. They’re going after you personally. The near-dark hung like a gauzy gray curtain over them, making the blue coated soldiers indistinguishable from one another. You didn’t think Collins was going to let you walk away from this, did you? He could see Scarcliff, the last vestiges of his red scarf visible as it, too, turned to gray in the last light of sunset. He couldn’t tell which blue coat was Collins. And Collins, the Voice of Wisdom whispered to him, is the one you’d better find, and quick. Because you can bet he’s looking for you. You and most definitely Scarcliff.

The open doorway of the cabin loomed like a hungry maw. That’s where the bees are. That’s where Fiona is. He aimed at the soldier who was shooting at him and fired, hoping the shot at least bought him a few seconds to bolt for the cabin door. Probably someone in there guarding her, he thought grimly. Can’t be helped.  

He threw himself forward into the enveloping darkness, rolling sideways and expecting to be shot at any moment. The scabbing burn on his neck pulled and throbbed, adding its complaints to the nagging ache in his ribs. He gritted his teeth, keeping a steady grip on his pistol. Blue-gray shadows loomed in the tiny space, cluttering the darkness with confusing shapes. A white hot pinprick flared in his cheek, and he reflexively slapped the bee away from his face.

The relative silence inside the cabin was terrifying. “Fiona!” he hissed, hauling himself into a low crouch and backing against the nearby wall. “Fiona, where are you?” Panic started clawing its way through his chest and up his throat. His eyes began to adjust and he realized he didn’t see anyone in the cabin. “Fiona!” he called, frantic. Is she not here? How can she not be here? He froze, dark thoughts reeling through his head as he fought to control his breathing. Where the hell is...

“Miss Lewis-Smythe!”

Storm whirled around, his pistol suddenly aimed at Captain Scarcliff’s chest. He realized that in his panicked state, he’d allowed the Captain to approach and aim a pistol right between his eyes. He instantly snapped the barrel of his own weapon towards the floor. Scarcliff did likewise.

“Where the hell is she?” Scarcliff barked.

“I don’t know,” Storm said, clenching his jaw. “She’s not here.”

Scarcliff exhaled through his teeth. “What? What do you mean, ‘she’s not...’”

“She’s not here!” Storm realized he was shaking. “Where’s Collins?”

The gunshot shot was deafening, the sound blasting off bare stone walls in the confined space. Scarcliff spun around, his knees buckling as impact knocked him over a low bench and sent him sprawling onto the hard-packed dirt floor. Storm gasped, fumbling his gun back up to the darkened doorway and pulling the trigger. The hammer fell with a dull, empty click. Tabarnak.

“That’s Captain Collins, and your services are no longer needed,” Collins hissed, muzzle flash and thunder filling the entire world.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Chapter 307: Of Tooth and Claw

Jesse knew when he jumped off the roof and onto Hezekiah Stone’s broad, buckskin-clad back that this would be a life or death fight. There was no way to shoot the man, standing as he was with Eagle Bone in his grip. So there was nothing left to do but jump on him and go hand to hand.

Eagle Bone grunted with pain when Jesse landed and toppled Stone onto the injured brave’s chest. Jesse instantly regretting slamming into him, but Eagle Bone was on his back and badly bleeding, and within a hair’s breadth of being scalped. Jesse figured if he got hurt worse by the rescue attempt, it wasn't like any of them had much to lose anyway. He attempted to plunge his knife into Stone’s back, but the double-layered leather cowl of the man’s heavy buckskin coat turned the blade aside. His knuckles bounced uselessly against the man’s well-protected shoulder blade.

Stone was like an attacking bear, twisting around and grabbing Jesse in an iron grip as the two of them grappled. Instantly, the bigger man was on top of him, digging his fingers into Jesse’s lacerated shoulder and savaging him the way a wolf would a rabbit. Jesse’s knife skittered from his grasp.

Jesse cried out, agony rocketing through him, and rolled in the man’s grip, sinking his teeth into Stone’s huge paw. It was a cheap shot, Jesse knew, but this wasn’t some bunkhouse disagreement or saloon fight. This wasn’t even the brutal brawl he’d had with Richard Galloway, where the two of them were at least somewhat evenly matched. Stone was a hardened mountain man, and he was stronger and tougher and faster than anyone Jesse had ever mixed it up with. Jesse knew he didn’t have an edge in this fight. He was considerably lighter and nowhere near as strong. Even his impressive speed wasn't going to help him this time.  And Stone, he knew, was the sort of man that could break him in half with his bare hands. And he probably will...

Stone threw a backhanded punch hard across Jesse’s face, sending him reeling backwards into the dirt, ears ringing. Eagle Bone lay beside him, his face the color of ash and his eyes closed. Ah, shitfire, this is bad. He’s gonna bleed out while I get the hell stomped out of me. Dammit! He rolled over, grabbing for his pistol as Stone covered the distance between them with almost unnatural speed, kicking him and sending his pistol sailing. Gasping, he rolled into Stone’s legs, spilling the man back down to the ground. He glimpsed a flurry of fringe, a flash of blue, and new panic rose in him as he realized Still Water Woman had come down off the roof and was running towards the fight. “No,” he gasped, frantic in his helplessness. “Stay ba...” A boot connected with his side and he arched in pain, overcome with sudden nausea. Stone kicked him again, flipping him onto his stomach and driving a knee hard into his back, forcing the air from his lungs.

“How do you like your ‘beads and whiskey’ now, you mouthy little shit?” Stone rasped, breathing hard and jerking Jesse’s head back by his hair. “When you get to Hell, tell His Horses and that confused bastard in the dress I’ve changed my mind, squaw man.”

He drove his knee into Jesse’s back harder, compressing his ribs and making drawing breath impossible. Black suns exploded across Jesse’s vision. He tried to twist in Stone’s grip, desperately trying to break the man’s grip and throw him off.

Stone grunted in shock, his grip loosening as he jerked forward, suddenly struggling with a new attacker. Jesse immediately rolled, backstroking through the dirt and gasping for breath.

“And how do you bloody like your red-haired whores now, you filthy, murdering, bloody pig?!” Stone’s attacker was screeching, blue clad arms bound at the wrist and hooked tightly around his neck. Jesse lay frozen, mouth agape in shock. Fiona, her split lip crusted with dried blood and one eye swollen shut, was wrapped around Stone like a python, hauling hard on her bound arms locked around his throat with her legs coiled around his waist from behind. Her hair wheeled around both their heads like demon fire, buzzing with tangled, angry bees. She was howling an incoherent torrent of profane, Quebecois abuse. Stone’s face was going purple as he struggled to flip her forward, wheezing out a strangled howl as her teeth sank into his ear.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Chapter 306: Crazy

Here's one of my "ambrotypes", with Michael Greyeyes as Eagle Bone. I particularly like the startled look on his face in this picture. Enjoy!    -gina

Eagle Bone was so startled at seeing angry bees swarm the bluecoat in front of him that he almost forgot to release his arrow.

His sister’s deerhide parfleche had come sailing down from the roof of the cabin, slapping into the bluecoat’s head and releasing a swarm of furious bees into a swirling, stinging cloud. The bluecoat was howling, slapping at his face and fighting to bring his pistol back up into position.

A sharp, burning pain stung the back of Eagle Bone’s hand, startling him back into the moment. He released his bowstring, and the bluecoat staggered back into the woodpile, falling backwards over the scattered logs with an arrow in his chest. Eagle Bone felt something strike the side of his head, vibrating and buzzing. A bee was stuck in his hair. He shook his head, knocking it away before he got stung again.

He saw Lights the Storm diving around the side of a cottonwood, chips of bark and leaves exploding around him as someone shot at him. The bluecoats had turned on each other, and the grove was in chaos. Bullets whizzed past, and the smoke from guns clouded the air between  himself and the trapped Crow. We do not even know who to fight right now. He loped away from the bees, feeling another sting burn his shoulder as he waved them away from his face. 

He glanced up to see Still Water Woman and Wacanga on the roof, crouching behind the chimney. Is...she holding a pistol? He looked harder, unsure of what he was seeing. Today is revealing itself to be a strange day, indeed. This is what we get for agreeing to ride with bluecoats and listening to a Crow. Wacanga is crazy. His brains didn’t thaw out with the rest of him.

He could almost hear Two Elk’s scolding voice in his ear. Eagle Bone knew exactly what the old winkte would say to him right now. “You are the crazy one,” he would have said, laughing. “No one forced you to come out here. You know what would happen if that wasichu with sweetgrass for hair is killed. You are here for your sisters.”

“So you are right, two-spirit,” he whispered, nocking another arrow and looking around for whoever was keeping the Crow pinned behind the tree. “As always.” His eyes fell on a white man he recognized from the village, tall and bearded and with long, sand-colored hair, aiming a rifle at him. Stone. He swung his bow up and fired, and suddenly he was down hard on his back, his bow fumbling away and the ground slamming into him with the force of a war club. His leg was on fire, and he felt the heat of blood surging between his grasping fingers. He clenched his teeth against the white-hot agony, scrambling for his knife as the man started towards him.

“Nice try, red man,” Stone said. “But today ain’t your lucky day.” He swung the butt of the rifle, throwing Eagle Bone onto his side with the force of the blow and trapping the knife against the ground with his foot.  

Eagle Bone writhed in the dirt, his wrist pinned beneath Stone’s huge boot and weakness washing over him in dizzying waves. Every movement brought fresh agony. He fought to push it away, to ignore it, to simply be able to clear his mind and think.

Stone bent over him, grabbing a handful of Eagle Bone’s hair and unsheathing a huge knife. “This is worth more to me than it is to you,” he grunted, twisting his fist to get a better grip, and raised the knife to Eagle Bone’s brow. “You don’t need it anymore. So you just hold still and...”

A shadow dropped over them and suddenly, he was crushed breathless at the bottom of a writhing tangle of buckskin and curses, blood running across his face and along his ear where Stone’s knife had nicked his cheek. He could hear Still Water Woman screaming his name, and Stone and Wacanga howling a steady litany of white man’s threats and oaths he couldn’t understand. Wacanga...crazy, irritating Wacanga...had flung himself off the roof and leaped upon Stone’s back like an attacking mountain lion.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Chapter 305: Hokahey

This is one of my "ambrotypes", made of found images. This one of Still Water Woman is from a picture of Yankton Sioux activist Zitkala-Sa, who worked towards the improvement of Native American policies. She wrote a Native Amerian opera, called The Sun Opera, in 1913Giving her waist+ length tresses a haircut for this portrait of Still Water Woman was a challenge. I love the incredible strength and determination in her face, and the direct, intense gaze in her eyes.   -gina

Crouched on the sod roof of the trapper’s cabin dug into the hillside, Still Water Woman fanned a little more smoke into the skin bag. She could feel the bees humming inside, vibrating softly as they woke from their smoke-induced stupor. The sleepy effect of it was wearing off, and she didn’t want to be holding the bag when it did. A few of them crawled lazily up her arm, clinging to the leather fringes on her dress.

“Ah, shitfire...” Wacanga breathed, peering around the stone chimney at the gunfire erupting out in the darkening yard. “They sure know we’re here now.” He jerked his head back and a chip of stone exploded from the corner of the chimney. There was yelling and cursing from below. “But it worked. They’re comin’ out. They may be up here soon, though.” He crouched down beside her, his face tight with fear. “I do not like that you are here in this,” he said in the language of the People.

She gazed at his face, at how his blue eyes had darkened with the sky, and his yellow hair was fading to the color of moonlight in the deepening mauve shadows. “And I do not like that you are, Wacanga,” she said, feeling a sad smile tug at her lip. He was right. It had not been difficult to get up here. All they’d had to do was sneak through the trees and brush, go wide around the hill, and then walk out onto the roof where it dug into the slope. Anyone could do the same. A lost honeybee was hoisting itself up a loose strand of his hair, drunken and clumsy. She gently caught it in her hand and dropped it into the bag with its sisters. Despite their peril, despite the fact that they might end up dying here, on this roof, the sound of the humming bees made her smile. They sounded the way they had on that warm afternoon in the grass, when she and Wacanga lay together as one. When she had realized that nothing mattered but how he’d felt in her arms, sweet and alive and Now. How he’d arched against her, her name a prayer on his lips, and how one fleeting moment of feeling his pounding heart and his shuddering breath against her cheek was all she would ever need in the world from that moment on.

He saved me. He thinks I saved him, that I brought him back to life, but he does not know the truth. When he first opened his eyes in my lodge, I walked back into the world. We walked back together. “If we walk the Soul Road tonight, Wacanga," she said, "we will hold each other’s hands.”

He gave her a quizzical look, unable to interpret her words. She shook her head dismissively, leaned forward, and kissed him, savoring the sweetness of him. The shouting below was faraway, unimportant. She quickly stood up, intending to dump the remainder of the bees and the rest of the honeycomb scraps down the chimney before she found herself holding a bag of stinging, angry sisters.

He grabbed her hand, jerking her back downwards, sheltering her behind the chimney and the shadows. “Be careful! If you get shot...”

“I choose to be here, Wacanga,” she reminded him as the sound of gunfire peppered the air. “You did not put me here.”

Below them, Lights the Storm and Eagle Bone made a panicked break for cabin, erupting from the underbrush as bullets shredded the leaves around them. She gasped. A blue coat had hung back from the fray, and Still Water Woman watched in growing horror as he raised his freshly-loaded rifle to his shoulder, aiming at her brother and the Crow scout. We have been betrayed. “Wacanga!” She grabbed Wacanga’s arm, pointing wildly.

“Shit!” he spat, fumbling his pistol into position as a stream of unintelligible syllables sputtered from his lips. He fired a frantic shot, and the soldier recoiled, running after his fleeing quarry. “Down!” he barked, pushing her down onto the grassy sod as another shot whined off the stone chimney. He steadied the salvaged army pistol and squeezed off another shot, cursing and muttering.

Below, Eagle Bone was close enough that she could see him breathing, see, the heave of his chest and the ripple of his arm as he drew back his bow. The soldier dove behind the firewood stacked against the side of the house, drawing a pistol and aiming at her brother, exposed against the bare stone. With an agonized cry, she swung the satchel over her head, sending it sailing into the soldier’s hiding place like a falling star.

The bluecoat howled, his pistol firing impotently into the sky as the imprisoned bees swirled out in an angry cloud. Jesse was fumbling in his pockets, reloading the pistol with bullets he’d taken from a dead soldier’s coat back in the village. He spun the cylinder and flipped it around in his hand, offering the handle to Still Water Woman.

Startled, she looked up at him, shaking her head. “I do not know how...”

Jesse continued to hold out the weapon to her. It's a good day to learn" he said. "We are not dying on a roof today."