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This was my story written for the 2003 Moonridge auction. Thanks to Lady Quadressus for her generosity.
Although he had left Cascade with a full tank and stopped for gas at every reasonable opportunity, his car had finally run out of fuel - he hadn't seen a filling station for many miles. The last town - if he could use that word for the handful of houses lining the road that he had passed nearly half an hour previously - was over twenty miles behind him, but there was no point in trying to go back to it; there had been no store there, no gas pump, no indication that it even possessed an electricity supply. He would have thought it derelict, totally deserted, if it hadn't been for the two elderly men sitting - early though it was - outside a house that was desperately in need of a lick of paint.
And it had been many hours since he'd seen another car.
What, he wondered, should he do now? He had been on the road for nearly fifteen hours; he had nine hours left to get to Buffalo Creek by the time Eli Stoddard had specified when he made his frantic phone call for help.
"We've run into a problem at the excavation," Stoddard said, and Blair had been startled by the undisguised fear in his friend-and-mentor's voice. "I think you can help us, Blair - certainly nobody else can. But you need to be here inside twenty-four hours."
"What's the problem?" Blair asked.
"I can't tell you over the phone. Just... believe me, and come. Please."
Stoddard had been Blair's adviser, mentor, for most of his time at the university; he couldn't refuse an appeal like that. "All right, Eli - I'll come. Where are you?"
He had written down the instructions and was certain he had followed the route exactly. If only Jim had been free to accompany him! Jim would have known for sure that they were on the right road. But Jim was tied up in Cascade, his evidence needed in a court case that was moving so slowly it looked as if the trial was likely to drag on for another month.
Blair hadn't even waited to speak to Jim; he had taken ten minutes to check a map and mark the route clearly on it, shove a change of clothes into a duffel bag, scribble a note giving his friend what little information he had; left it in plain sight where Jim couldn't possibly miss it, and left. Pushed by Eli's urgency, the only stops he had made were to fill the gas tank, where he also took the opportunity to visit the rest room, and, some eight hours into the journey, he had stopped for twenty minutes to give himself a short rest and eat a quick sandwich when he found an all-night diner.
Sighing, he pulled the map out again and re-checked it against Eli's directions, though if he had made a mistake there was nothing he could do to correct it while his car was sitting there with an empty gas tank.
Although Jim had never let him forget the time he had sent them forty miles in the wrong direction, although he had a couple of times pretended not to know east from west or north from south in order to keep the gag going, Blair knew his sense of direction was actually better than average, and it had not failed him on this occasion. He was exactly where he was supposed to be, and he found himself wondering why Eli hadn't realized there would be no opportunity, on this stretch of road, for him to fill up on gas.
The almost ghost town he had passed wasn't on the map, but by estimating speed and elapsed time Blair decided he was not quite four miles from a biggish town - well, big enough that it was marked on the map. He could walk that distance in an hour. He might be able to buy a can of gas there and get a cab back to his stranded car; but that would take at least another half hour that he couldn't really afford to lose, despite the time he had left. It might be simpler to arrange for a garage to pick up his car and rent one to continue his journey...
With a sigh he took his duffel from the trunk, pushed his map and the paper with Eli's instructions into it, added his last, still nearly-full bottle of water, slung it over his shoulder and set off down the road.
And as he went, he heard, faint in the distance, a rumble of thunder.
Jim Ellison walked into the loft with a sigh of relief. Court appearances were an accepted and necessary, if sometimes annoying, part of a cop's life, and he was aware of a feeling of satisfaction every time his evidence was, at least in part, responsible for putting away one of the criminals who threatened the welfare of his tribe. He accepted the tedium of sitting, waiting to give his evidence; however, if there was one thing he hated, it was when the defense attorney managed to drag a simple case on and on - and this particular lawyer was challenging everything the witnesses were saying. The case had already dragged on for a week, when - from all the evidence the police had presented to the DA - it should have been long finished; and Jim was one of several witnesses still waiting to give their evidence.
As he parked, he noticed that Blair's car wasn't in its usual space, and as he walked up the stairs he wondered idly where his friend might be. It was possible that he had gone to Rainier, although he had no classes that day and been planning on working at home.
He detoured by the kitchen and collected a bottle of water, then moved to the couch. About to sink into it, his attention was caught by a sheet of paper taped to the television screen. Puzzled - that was not a place Blair normally left a message - Jim retrieved it.
"Jim - Eli phoned. He's got a problem he thinks I can help him with, and - well, I owe him. I don't know how long I'll be away, but... well, if you get finished with the Cochrane case in the next day or two, I'd appreciate it if you'd come after me. I'll phone if I get the chance. Blair."
There followed a clear set of instructions on how to get to Stoddard's camp.
Jim frowned, not liking the tone of 'I'll phone if I get the chance.' Tempted to call Blair's cell phone, he paused, glancing at the directions, not certain how long Blair had been gone. He could, by now, be somewhere his cell phone wouldn't pick up the signal... and remembering that Blair often forgot to switch it on, he decided it wasn't worth trying.
As Blair had done a little more than an hour earlier, Jim went in search of a road map. Using the instructions, he marked Blair's route, noting with some concern that it passed through desert territory.
He was forced to remind himself that Blair wasn't stupid. Blair would have taken note of that and stocked up with water accordingly. No, Blair - who had been on several expeditions in various parts of the world in the years before Jim met him - knew perfectly well how to look after himself.
So why did he feel so uneasy?
With a sigh, he turned back to the kitchen in search of something to eat. Habit rather than hunger, he knew; and there in front of him he saw a familiar shape. The big black cat morphed into the human spirit that wore his face.
"Why do you not follow your guide, sentinel?"
"I can't. Not yet. I'll follow him as soon as possible."
"Your guide is on a path that leads him into danger. Why do you not follow him?"
"If I follow my guide now, as my heart tells me to do, I leave my tribe exposed to danger." Jim, already instinctively certain that Blair was heading into a dangerous situation, wondered how he could explain the concept of a trial to a spirit whose world seemed to be composed of black and white, of yes and no, with nothing in between. "There is a man who has hurt some children of the tribe," he said carefully. "We know this, but the law says we must prove it to the tribe. What I have to say constitutes a large part of that proof, but I have yet to say it, and until I am called on to do so I am not free to follow my guide. If I go now, the man might escape justice and be set free to harm other children. The urge to protect my Guide is strong; the imperative to protect the tribe has to take precedence."
The spirit looked at him for some moments in silence; then his lips curled slightly in a mirthless, almost calculating smile, and he nodded once. Then, without changing back into animal form, he faded from sight.
The evening dragged, and just after ten Jim went to bed. He slept uneasily, and woke unrefreshed. He dragged himself out of bed, resigned to another long, boring day in court when every instinct urged him get into his truck and head off on the long trip to Stoddard's camp.
He showered, shaved, dressed, and started the coffeemaker. He had just poured a cup of coffee when the phone rang.
He grabbed it. "Ellison."
"Jim, it's Simon. You can forget about court today - just come straight in. Cochrane's dead."
"What?" Memory brought the expression on his alter ego's face vividly to mind. "How?"
"Weirdest thing. The warder found him dead in his cell this morning. He was pressed into a corner, his back to the wall, as if he was trying to escape from something - but something he needed to watch, didn't want to turn his back to, and apparently there was a look of sheer terror on his face, but there wasn't a mark on him. Two of the other prisoners awaiting trial said they heard him screaming during the night - it woke them. One of them said he was yelling something like 'No! No! Leave me alone!', the other said he couldn't make out any words, just screams, but he might have been yelling 'No!'. Then he stopped screaming, and - well, they thought he'd had a nightmare. They both turned over and went back to sleep, didn't think any more about it till the guards asked if anyone had heard anything during the night.
"Anyway, that closes the case. Saves the taxpayer the expense of keeping him locked up for the next forty or fifty years and makes damn sure he doesn't prey on any more kids. There'll have to be an autopsy, of course, but the prison doctor said it looked as if he'd died of fright, that he'd been dead two, maybe three hours. Must've been a hell of a nightmare."
"Yes," Jim said absently. He licked his lips. "Simon, I need a few days off. When I got home last night, Sandburg wasn't here - he'd had a call from one of his professors who's on an expedition and wanted his help. He didn't tell me the reason, but whatever it was, it was urgent enough that he couldn't even wait long enough to speak to me; he just left a note. He asked me to go after him as soon as I'd finished with the Cochrane case." About to mention his 'visitor' he stopped himself; it would be too much information, something Simon really wouldn't want to know. "You know how much the kid helps me; I'd like to help him out this time."
"You don't have any active cases at the moment, do you? You're just doing routine paperwork, right?"
"All right. I don't suppose you know how long you'll be away?"
"No idea - as I said, I don't even know why Stoddard wanted him. I'll call you when I know more."
"All right. Two weeks max. If it takes longer than that, you're on unpaid leave."
"Right, Simon. Thanks."
Jim hung up. As he went upstairs to change and pack a bag, he sent a grateful thought in the direction of his spirit guide, who had surely been the cause of Cochrane's death.
Returning downstairs, he gulped down the half-cold coffee, rinsed out the cup, made sure everything was switched off and everything secure, picked up his bag and walked out of the loft, listening for the click of the lock as he pulled the door shut.
Although it was still just after eight in the morning, it was already unpleasantly hot; the desert road was dusty, and Blair, used to the cooler, moister conditions of the Pacific north-west coast, was soon sweating profusely. Tempted within five minutes to stop and drain his bottle of water, he gritted his teeth and resisted the urge. He forced himself to maintain a steady speed, and made his first stop after quarter of an hour. He allowed himself a single, unrefreshing mouthful of warm water, replaced the bottle in his bag, paused and took several deep breaths that still left his body feeling oxygen-low, straightened and walked on. With luck, that was the first mile behind him.
Although he had hoped to make another mile before he stopped again, his body demanded another short break after some ten minutes. Flat and undemanding as the terrain would be in cooler conditions, he was panting and aware that his pace had slowed. This wouldn't do. Exercising strict self-control, he swallowed another mouthful of water, then carried on, forcing himself to walk faster.
Early though it was, the air shimmered in the heat, blurring the outlines of everything... not that there was much to see but sandy gravel and rock and more rock and some clumps of drought-resistant vegetation, a few creosote bushes - and he could only be glad that it was still early in the day; in the heat of early afternoon, this walk would be totally impossible.
Somewhere in the distance, he heard another faint, long-drawn-out rumble of thunder. Well, given the heat, that was hardly surprising. For once, he knew he would welcome a good hard downpour, but the storm didn't seem to be getting any closer.
Another ten minutes, and he paused once more. Ahead of him, possibly a mile away, he could see the shimmer of water. Water! He speeded up slightly, drawn by the promise of a long, cold drink.
The road curved slightly; if he followed it, it would no longer lead him direct to the lake ahead of him. He paused, indecisive. To go first to the lake would only take a few minutes, and then, refreshed and rehydrated, he would make better time... but in the back of his mind a little voice murmured, Delay. You need to get to Eli. You can't afford to delay even a few minutes.
Even so, his need for water pulled him forward. One step, two... ten... and then in front of him he saw a big wolf blocking his way. He frowned. Where had that come from? It wasn't threatening him; but it was clearly determined not to let him go any further.
Suddenly he remembered the bottle of water in his bag; he pulled it out and gulped three mouthfuls of water. They barely moistened his mouth. About to drain the bottle, he stopped himself, staring at the 'lake'.
This is a desert, he reminded himself. There wasn't any water marked on the map. A lake that big would be marked on the map. So - it isn't a lake. Stay. On. The. Road.
The wolf whined encouragingly as he turned back onto the road.
Surely he was at least halfway to the town by now? He pushed the water back into his bag, and carried on, strengthened by the adrenalin rush that followed his realization of how nearly he had been misled by a mirage and strangely encouraged by the presence of the wolf as it trotted beside him.
When he finally saw the first buildings of the town, his first instinct was that he was hallucinating again; that it was another mirage. The wolf yapped once, encouragingly. He glanced at the animal, in time to see it fade and disappear. This convinced him that he had, in fact, really reached the town. He checked his watch. It had taken him nearly an hour and a half; but he was happy that he had been able to ration his water so that there was still a mouthful left. He drank it, then headed on, sending grateful thoughts in the direction of his vanished companion.
Another minute took him to a small garage. He went into the attached store.
A quick glance around led him to a small refrigerator full of bottles of water; he grabbed one, and was already opening it as he moved to the counter. He tossed a five-dollar bill onto the counter as he gulped half of the contents of the bottle.
"Come far?" the man asked as he gave Blair his change.
"Ran out of gas four, five miles back," Blair admitted. "I was keeping the tank filled, but after the last fill up I didn't realize it was quite so far till I could get more. I've still got several hours to go, and I've got a time limit, too - my friend can't wait if I'm late. To save myself time - could I rent a car? And could you pick up mine?"
"Sorry, mister; I don't have a car for rent. What I can do is take you back to your car with a can of gas, then you could fill up here. Best I can do."
Blair finished the bottle of water. "Okay. How soon can you take me back?"
The man grinned. "Right now. I'll just shut up the store till I get back."
"Thanks, man." Blair handed over the money for a gallon of gas and another bottle of water and detoured by the refrigerator to collect it. The store owner locked the door and hooked what looked like a frequently-used sign on the outside of it - "Back in half an hour."
Ten minutes later Blair stood beside his stranded car as the store owner poured the gas into the tank.
"Right, mister - see if it'll start."
Sitting in the car, even with every window wound fully open, was like sitting in an oven.
It took several attempts before the engine finally kicked into life. Blair exchanged a thumbs up with his helper, who returned to his own car and set off. Blair followed.
Back in the town, he filled the tank, bought several more bottles of water, some candy bars and several bags of nuts, then drove on. Although he had worked out that the trip would take him twenty hours rather than the twenty-four Eli specified, he had lost two full hours of his reserve time, and knew he couldn't afford another lengthy delay. He would have to push his speed if he was to guarantee reaching Buffalo Creek by five that afternoon.
Push his speed... God, how could he do that safely? He had already driven virtually non-stop for fifteen hours, the last two hours of effort had drained his reserves, and the day was getting steadily hotter...
He needed a rest... but if he closed his eyes he would fall asleep, and lose even more time...
If only Jim had been free to come with him!
He heard thunder again, slightly closer, but still too far off for lightning to be visible; the sky remained an unrelieved blue, with no clouds even near the horizon.
The wind blowing in the open windows of the car was warm, unrefreshing, but he breathed deeply, using a yoga rhythm, knowing that the discipline would help him, keep him awake.
Suddenly he became aware that he was smelling gas - not strongly, but he was certainly aware of it. Frowning, he glanced at the fuel gauge. It was lower than he would have expected - not by much, but certainly lower than it should be.
God, he had to have a leak. That was all he needed! But, although he hadn't been aware of a smell of gas back then, it certainly explained why he had run out of gas. Without the leak, he would have reached the town, very low on fuel, certainly, but still with a small reserve...
He frowned. Why now? In all the years he had been driving, he had never had a gas leak. Plenty of other problems, oil leaks even, but never a gas leak. Why now?
Unless... No. Impossible.
He heard an encouraging whine, and glanced sideways. A wolf was sitting in the passenger seat.
A wolf. His spirit animal. Its continued presence was surprisingly reassuring.
He returned his attention to the road and began thinking aloud, reiterating the facts as he knew them. "Eli called me late yesterday afternoon. He sounded frightened - and Eli's not a man to be easily frightened. He said only I could help him... but I had to get to him inside twenty-four hours. Why twenty-four hours? Why not just 'as soon as possible'? And why didn't Eli contact me earlier if there was a problem - why wait till it was urgent?
"And where he is - driving there is the simplest and easiest way to reach him, even though it's a really long drive. Jim is totally tied up with a case that should have taken a couple of days, three at most, so he couldn't come with me to share the driving... The car springs a gas leak that strands me in a desert and it really shouldn't have been quite so hot that early in the morning... and now you appear, and it's not as if I see you that often. And hey, thanks - I'd say you saved my life back there. If I had wandered too far off the road my body'd be mummifying nicely in the heat about now.
"With all that... Why do I think someone - something - is trying to stop me from reaching Eli?"
The wolf whined again. There was a note of what could almost be called affirmation in the sound.
"Thank you," Blair went on, a sardonic note in his voice that would have surprised Jim, had he heard it. "That's very comforting to know." He was silent for some moments, then added, "And you're not actually going to tell me, are you?"
He glanced sideways again. His companion had gone.
Spirit guides! he thought. Masters of innuendo. Leave us to work out everything for ourselves from the slimmest of hints. Why can they never just come straight out and plain tell us anything?
Two minutes later, he drove into another small town.
There was another small garage; he stopped at it. After a moment, a man wearing stained overalls came out of what was clearly a workshop.
"Gas?" he asked.
"Yes, but I think I've got a gas leak," Blair told him. "Can you have a look?
"Sure." He gestured towards his workshop. "Take her in and put her over the pit. It's straight in and at the end of the shed."
Blair obeyed, finding the workshop very dark after the brilliant sunshine outside. The mechanic guided him into position, then dropped into the pit, grunted several times, then called up. "Yup, there's some corrosion on the fuel pipe and you've got a pinhole there. It's not bad yet, but it can only get worse. I'll put a patch on it for you." He climbed out of the pit, crossed to a cupboard, selected some things and went back. After a few minutes he climbed back out of the pit. "That'll hold you for now, but get it properly fixed as soon as you can - if possible, soon as you get to where you're going."
"Thanks." Blair backed off the pit and back out of the workshop, finishing up at the gas pump.
With the tank filled again, Blair collected some more bottles of water, paid the man - finding the repair less expensive than he had feared - and set off again. At least he had only lost about a quarter of an hour this time. He grinned mirthlessly; was that luck, or the machinations of his spirit guide? He had begun to suspect the latter. He drove on, and was unsurprised when the big canine materialized on the seat beside him.
Well, at least now he had company... of a sort.
Confident that the wolf would keep him from falling asleep, he drove on.
He reached his destination just after four.
Buffalo Creek was a tiny settlement, very similar in appearance to the ghost town he had passed through some six hours earlier. Even the two elderly men sitting outside one of the buildings could have been clones of the ones he had seen back there - and like them, these two paid no attention whatsoever to the elderly car that bounced past them down the potholed road. Unlike the small, semi-deserted townships he had passed through since that ghost town, townships which had at least shown some signs of living in the twentieth century, this one consisted of one street - the main road - with buildings on both sides of it. At least half of the twenty or so buildings were derelict, in varying degrees of collapse. The remainder were roughly patched, the repair work clearly that of men unskilled in the use of saw or hammer; the buildings were probably windproof, but Blair doubted that any of them were totally waterproof, though that hardly mattered in this dry wasteland.
Stoddard's camp was clearly visible on the outskirts of the settlement, the neatness of its half dozen tents showing up the dilapidation of the buildings even more. Blair pulled in beside the two vehicles already there. As he got out of the car, Stoddard came out of one of the bigger tents and crossed quickly to the Volvo.
"Blair! Thank God."
Now that he saw the strained look on Stoddard's face, Blair's unease deepened. "Eli! What's wrong?"
"Just about everything," Stoddard said bluntly. "Come into the shade and have something to drink, and I'll tell you what's happened."
Blair followed his mentor into the tent. There was a table in it and several chairs; an elderly man sat in one of them, while two were occupied by young men who looked like students. There was a pile of paper on the table in front of the fourth chair. Five more chairs were empty, with no way of telling if they had ever been occupied.
There was a lamp on the table, and some artifacts; the men were studying them and making careful notes, but it was clear to Blair that they were on edge, and as he entered behind Stoddard they all looked up from their work.
"This is Blair Sandburg," Stoddard said. "Blair, this is Professor John Ingram, and our students, Grant Dixon and Ted Lassiter." He crossed to where a square of wood lay on the ground; lifted it, to reveal a hole, from which he took a bottle of water. Blair grinned, recognizing the very basic cool box this provided.
Blair looked pointedly at the empty chairs as he accepted the water, and Stoddard went on. "I sent the other members of our party home two days ago. Grant and Ted don't believe in ghosts, and say they aren't going to let themselves be frightened away by an old story that's probably grown in the telling. John and I... We're not so sure. For myself, I'd just as soon take whatever precautions are possible. I've seen too many things over the years... You - well, you're one of those precautions."
"I'm a precaution?" Blair said blankly. "Against what?"
Stoddard looked at Ingram; Ingram looked at Stoddard, each clearly waiting for the other to speak. The two students pointedly ignored both men and carried on with their appraisal of the artifacts. Finally Stoddard seemed to realize that, as the one who had called for Blair, it was up to him to explain.
"We came here following the trail of Juan Alvarez, one of the junior officers who explored North America with Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in the 1540s. From the record Vasquez left, we know that his subordinates often took side trips if they heard talk of anything interesting in the neighborhood - for 'interesting' read treasure. John and I wondered what had drawn Alvarez in this direction, and going by the description of Alvarez' route in Vasquez' notes, we ended up here. What we found was the ruin of what had clearly been a prosperous settlement... "
The Spanish Commander on his sweating horse almost envied the native who walked easily alongside the horse. Shahone was almost naked, decency preserved only by a skimpy breech-clout. Although he was the only one walking - the Spaniards weren't going to give a mere native guide the use of a horse, even if Shahone had been willing to climb onto the back of one of those strange creatures from the Other World - he was the only one in Alvarez' troop who wasn't even breathing heavily.
Of course, the Spaniards were all in heavy uniform, a dress totally unsuited to the temperatures of this part of the New World, temperatures so much higher than any they had experienced at home.
"How much further?" he snapped irritably.
"No far," Shahone assured him. In fact, he had no idea of how these Companions of the God measured distance, but as far as he was concerned it was no great distance.
"And you're sure it's rich?"
"Rich," Shahone agreed, unable to expand on his answer. As the principle shaman of the area, it had fallen to him to learn something of the God's language, for who could expect the God and his Companions to learn the debased tongue of Man? But even so, he had had time to learn only the most basic words to allow him to communicate.
He had no idea why the God's Companions wanted to visit a settlement that was 'rich' - it was possible, of course, that they wanted to see how well Man had used the gifts the Gods had given them, and so he was taking them to the richest one in the area.
At last they topped a rise, and there in front of them stretched the fertile land where corn grew strong, and behind that the prairie where many buffalo could be seen.
As the Spaniards rode down the long slope to the simple adobe hogans of the village, the people who had been working in the fields began to drift homewards, curious but not fearful; was not Shahone, a shaman known to them, with the strangers?
Alvarez pulled his horse to a stop in the center of the village, looking around with undisguised contempt as the villagers gathered, keeping a wary distance between themselves and the strange animals that let these strangers, with pale skin such as the villagers had never seen before, sit on their backs. It was surely a sign that the strangers were supernatural, that they could so control such large beasts!
The headman moved a little closer - as nervous as the others, he was well aware that if he showed it, his days as headman were numbered.
Shahone turned to him. "These are Companions of the God Francisco Vasquez de Coronado." He stumbled over the pronunciation of the alien name. "They want to see the richest village in the area, and so I brought them to you, for your village is undoubtedly the most prosperous."
Having seen that all the buildings in the settlement looked identical, Alvarez glared at Shahone. "This is the richest town here? Where do they keep their gold?"
Shahone frowned in incomprehension. "Gold?" he asked. "What is gold?"
"Wealth! Riches! You said they were rich! Where is the gold?"
"Ah!" From Alvarez' use of the word 'rich', now he understood. He gestured to the fields. "Gold. Rich. Most gold."
"That's not gold, you stupid bastard! That's just useless plants! Where's the gold? The jewels? Where does this fool store his treasure?"
There were too many words that Shahone did not know, and all he could understand was that the leader of the Companions was angry in general, and angry at him in particular. He had no idea why, because he had done what was required of him.
Alvarez glanced towards his men. "Carlos! Shoot one of the women. That'll show them we mean business."
Carlos looked towards the gathered natives, selected one woman who was standing a little in front of the others, raised his musket and fired. She jerked backwards under the force of the impact, and collapsed. One man ran forward and dropped to his knees beside her. He touched her, and lifted a hand covered with blood, looking at it, a puzzled expression on his face.
Startled by the sudden noise, the other natives stared at her, and even Alvarez recognized that they had completely failed to associate the gun - or even the bang - with her death. He glared at Shahone.
"I did that," he said. "I killed her. And I will kill more if you do not tell me where the gold is hidden."
Shahone turned to the headman. He had understood enough to be able to explain, "The God's Companion is angry. He says that he killed the woman, and he will kill more if we do not tell him where you have stored your grain... though why he should want to know that, I do not know."
The headman turned and led the way to one of the buildings, slightly larger than the rest. "Here is what is left from last year's harvest."
Shahone turned to Alvarez. "Gold here."
Alvarez dismounted and pushed forward. He stopped in the doorway, staring at the stock of grain. "Do you take me for a complete fool?" he snarled. "This isn't gold!" He looked at his men as he gestured towards the villagers. "Put these ignorant fools into two of the huts, men in one, women in the other. Then kill the men!" he snapped. "All but these two. I'll keep them here. After that you can have your fun with the women until they tell us where the treasure is."
The peaceful villagers, not understanding what was happening, had no chance. Not until the women started screaming did Shahone understand what the strangers were doing.
Alvarez watched him, seeing the horror as it dawned on his face, and smiled. "Perhaps now you will tell me; where is the treasure you assured me was here? Where. Is. The. Gold?"
All Shahone could do was point again to the fields, to the storehouse of grain. "Gold! Rich!"
Holy Virgin! Alvarez thought. Even now...
Some of his men were waiting outside the hut that held the women, waiting with ill-concealed impatience for their turn to satisfy their lust. Alvarez called over to them. "Hola! While you wait - go and burn those useless fields, whatever perverted crop they're growing instead of honest wheat."
As the smoke began to rise, the headman cried out in horror, and Shahone shook his head, searching for the words to explain that the God's Companion was destroying the gold that he wanted.
Alvarez turned to him, finally realizing that there was no treasure here, no wealth of jewels or precious metal. "You lied, telling me there was wealth here and trying to tell me that a field of useless plants is a field of gold. You have one chance to save your worthless life. All men know there is uncounted treasure in this land. Where do you keep your true gold, your jewels?"
Shahone understood only two or three words. He had no way to explain that to his people, prosperity was measured in the fertility of the land, the skill of the hunters; that the wealthy were those who had plenty of food and water; that he had led these gods to the most prosperous village he knew, and in doing so had, all unknowing, brought disaster to it.
He shook his head as he pointed again to the burning fields.
Dimly, Alvarez finally realized that his native guide's grasp of Spanish was incomplete; perhaps he had not indeed understood what Alvarez wanted. He groped for the golden cross at his throat and thrust it towards the man. "This! Gold. Precious metal!"
Shahone looked at the cross in complete incomprehension. He recognized the yellow metal; there was some of it in the rivers, sometimes it was in the rocks used round the cooking fires and melted out of those rocks in the heat of the fires, but who in their right mind wanted to gather useless metal? This metal was particularly useless, for it was too soft to use for tools. He could only shake his head again and indicate the fields. "Rich," he said again. He indicated the cross. "No rich. No good."
Alvarez stared at the Indian as he realized what the man was saying. This primitive savage was daring to criticize the superior Spaniard, saying that the things the Spaniards valued were useless.
His men were returning from the fields, which were now burning steadily. "Take these men," he said. "Lash them up. The sentence is death by flogging... after you have all had your turn with the women. Tell the men who have already had one to come out and destroy those other primitive huts. This will let these ignorant savages see who has the power here."
Tied, watching the destruction of the village, unable to help the screaming women, not knowing what was going to happen to him but beginning to realize that he would die here, Shahone gathered his thoughts. He was a shaman, the most powerful one in the area. There was one thing he could do.
In his mind he began to construct a curse; a curse that would last for eternity...
"Juan Alvarez himself didn't survive to rejoin Vasquez," Stoddard said. "Most of his men made it back, led by his second-in-command, Alfonso Mendoza. The treasure they were after - whatever the story they heard, they'd found none. Well, they wouldn't - geologically this area is all wrong, but you wouldn't expect a city-bred minor aristocrat to know that. At best there might be a little gold dust carried downstream in the rivers."
"How did Alvarez die?" Blair asked. "Did anyone say?"
"Mendoza's report on Alvarez' death - you have to read between the lines, of course, interpret what he said in the light of modern medical knowledge, but John and I are convinced that he was bitten by an insect and either it was a dirty one or, more probably, he scratched with dirty nails, and ended up with blood poisoning, which, in his day, was almost automatically a death sentence. We found it interesting that it was Alvarez, the leader of the troop, who died, but these things happened; we had no reason to think it anything other than bad luck. A couple of the other men had died too - rattlesnakes had spooked their horses, they'd been thrown - one of them landed awkwardly, broke his neck, the snake got the other.
"Anyway, when we got here, following the clues we found in Vasquez' records and Mendoza's report, we didn't expect to find that in the years since, a new village had been built very close to the ruins of the old.
"We soon formed a good rapport with the handful of people who are left here. A lot have moved away in the last fifty years, many of them to settle on reservations.
"However, there was a legend in the village. According to it, the Spaniards destroyed everything, killed all the men and raped the women, leaving several of them pregnant, but for some reason they left the women alive; and it was those women who built the new village, refusing to leave their home territory."
"Says a lot for their determination," Blair said.
Stoddard nodded. "We don't have any medical evidence, of course, but the people are all related to some degree, and some show strong native American physical characteristics while others look more European."
"Which is at least circumstantial evidence that the story is true."
"I said we'd developed a good relationship with the people here, especially since we've been very careful to respect the area where their dead are buried, and only excavated the empty buildings. I thought we'd been told everything the people knew. Two days ago, however, one of the men told us that there was more to the story. They'd hesitated to tell us because they were afraid we'd laugh, and they also thought we'd finish our digging and be away before it mattered. "Apparently, as he died, the tribal shaman cursed the white attackers... and every year since then, on the anniversary of his death, he - his ghost - comes looking for the men who killed his people. White men. Any white men."
"He isn't aware of the passage of time?" Blair asked.
"It seems not. My first instinct was to pack up and leave, stay away for a couple of weeks, then come back and finish the excavation, but Luis said it was too late for that; the curse would follow us. Or, rather, it would follow the leaders of the expedition - John and me. Even if we separated, it would find us both."
"Why didn't he tell you earlier?"
"Out here, dates don't mean much - you know how it is. They'd forgotten it was getting close to That Time until one of them heard the first faint sounds of the ghost's anger. They're so used to it, every year, that at first it didn't occur to them that there would be a danger to us; and then Luis realized; as far as the ghost is concerned, all white men in or near the village are enemies to be destroyed before they can harm his people."
"Sounds?" Blair asked. "What sort of sounds? Did you hear anything?"
"We'd heard what sounded like distant thunder, and that was all."
"Thunder?" Blair frowned. "I'd a couple of problems on the road, and I kept hearing thunder... "
Stoddard licked sudenly dry lips. "Probably the same thunder," he murmured.
"Anyway, after Luis spoke to me, I sent the students away immediately, apart from Grant and Ted who refused to go. I wasn't sure what to do. But I was afraid that if John and I led the ghost away from here, it might target any - all - whites wherever we went.
"Then I remembered that you're a shaman. That during that expedition we were on to the Aleutians six years ago, the Yupik recognized you as one."
"Yes, but Eli, I'm a shaman from a completely different culture - well, from two different cultures, actually. A couple of years ago, a dying Chopec shaman passed on his abilities to me. However, I haven't had the full and proper training from either one. Anything I do as a shaman... It's guesswork."
"Blair, for as long as I've known you, you've been unhappy with your level of achievement, always convinced that you could do better. Eventually, you have to believe in yourself... as I do. I'm quite sure that you are our only hope of surviving the attack by this ghost... and I'm equally sure that you can convince it - him - shaman to shaman, that it is time for him to rest."
*** Blair, responding to the fear in Stoddard's voice, had rushed out of the loft without considering any other possible means of transport than his car, following the directions he was given; and indeed, leaving Cascade when he did, there wasn't really any other viable transport without waiting till the next morning. Jim, with time to think about it, had been subconsciously considering alternative modes of transportation, and as soon as Simon approved his leave he phoned the airport. As a result, he found himself, barely two hours later, aboard a flight that would cover nearly three-quarters of the distance in a fraction of the time it had taken Blair to drive it.
When he landed, he picked up his rental car and set off on what was still a fairly long drive, but would, he thought, get him to Buffalo Creek not much later than his guide. And he couldn't help but wonder why Blair hadn't thought to do the same - wait until morning, then fly as far as possible instead of exhausting himself with a thousand-mile drive.
He had to find his own route for the first hour or so, at which point he joined the route Blair had left for him. Already poor roads became steadily poorer, and townships, already scarce, became scarcer, almost ghost towns. He was, he thought, some fifteen to twenty miles short of his destination and beginning to worry about how little gas was left in the tank when he ran into a small township that boasted a garage; he pulled in to fill up.
His nose twitched; he could smell Blair, faintly, very, very faintly, and said, "Did a guy about thirty, shoulder-length brown hair, stop here? It'd be maybe four or five hours ago?"
"Yeah - nice guy. He filled his tank, bought some water and snacks. Be about... oh, not much more than three hours, though."
"Good, I'm catching up."
His attention drawn from the tank he was filling, the man looked at Jim. Blair had been right when he commented, not long into their acquaintance, that Jim's attitude clearly said 'cop', for the man said, "He's not in trouble with the cops, is he? He didn't seem the type."
Jim grinned. This man had met Sandburg once, for the minute or two it had taken him to buy gas and some snacks, and it was clear he harbored kind thoughts of his customer. "No, he works with the police - he's my partner. We should have come together, but I was held up, wasn't sure when I'd get away, and he wouldn't wait - well, make that couldn't wait. But I got away earlier than I expected... so here I am. He'll still get to Buffalo Creek first, but - "
"Buffalo Creek?" The man looked horrified. "That's a bad place, mister. There's evil there."
Jim looked puzzled. Frowning, he said, "What kind of evil?"
"Story goes that the place is cursed. People that are born there, they're not touched by the curse, but visitors, anyone that doesn't belong - sometimes they die, sometimes they go mad, but something bad always happens to them. You go after your friend and get him away from there 'fore the curse gets him... and watch out for yourself, too."
"I'll do that, and thanks for the warning," Jim said. He followed the man into the tiny shop, and selected one or two snacks and several bottles of water for himself, paid, strode out with an acknowledging wave, returned to his rental car and drove off.
Stoddard's problem had to be tied in with this 'evil'.
Despite his experience with the murdered Molly, despite the number of times he had seen his spirit panther and spoken with his alter ego, Jim was still inclined to dismiss the supernatural as so much mumbo jumbo. However, he couldn't deny that the garage man's attitude was that of genuine fear, rather than superstitious wariness.
Ahead of him, the sky was darkening ominously, and he registered a flash of lightning sparking from one cloud to another. In this sort of desert country a storm like that could cause a flash flood; automatically, he pressed his foot down harder, increasing his speed despite the rough track, ignoring the damage the jolting might do to suspension and shock absorbers.
It had been getting steadily darker for some minutes, and as Stoddard finished his story, Ingram lit the lamp standing on the table.
The sudden crack of thunder made all five men in the tent jump. For the first time, one of the young men - Blair, who hadn't been paying total attention to the introductions, thought it was Ted Lassiter - looked worried, and made a half move as if he wanted to hide under the table, drawing the attention of the other men sitting at it.
"Sorry," he muttered. "I don't like thunder. I know it's stupid. I know it's just a noise. I know it's the lightning that's dangerous and I'm not scared of that at all. But thunder... "
"The anger of the gods," Blair said quietly as he realized he was the calmest person in the tent. "You'd be surprised how many tribes think of it as the voice of a god, and that only those with a clear conscience are safe from possible retribution."
"But I'm not superstitious!" Lassiter exclaimed. "I don't believe in all that 'divine retribution' stuff!"
"Was your mother afraid of thunder?" Blair asked, and when Lassiter nodded, went on. "There's your explanation. As a young child you saw your mother was afraid, and automatically assumed that what she was afraid of was something for you to fear. But you must try to control it. Eli - " He turned to his old mentor. "You said you've been hearing thunder rumbling, and one of the locals saying that was 'the ghost's anger'."
"The stories you've been told about this ghost... One way to scare away unwanted visitors is to tell them stories about vengeful ghosts. If you show you're not afraid, those stories lose most of their impact."
"It's not the locals trying to drive us away," Stoddard said, repeating, "we've been careful to respect their burial place. We've been trying to put something into their economy by buying from them, we've even given them some medical help - one of the kids was bitten by a rattlesnake, and we had serum on hand. They've been friendly. Luis was most apologetic when he told us about the ghost, and I'll swear he was genuine."
Blair pushed his hair back. "So he believes in this ghost?"
They heard the thunder again, even louder, and Blair began to understand Lassiter's fear of it; there was something ominous, threatening, about the long-drawn-out rolling rumble, something that lifted the hair at his neck. Whether or not it was the voice of an angry ghost, he could understand how the people of the little township might think it was, especially given their history.
He took a deep, steadying breath, and moved to the door of the tent. Looking out, he registered just how dark it had become. Part of that was the approaching night, but part was undoubtedly the effect of the thick thunderclouds overhead.
He saw no flash of lightning, but the thunder cracked again just overhead, and as the echo died away he heard the sound of approaching hoofs. Something four-legged was coming at a flat-out gallop.
The car's headlights seemed to barely lighten the heavy darkness as Jim drove into the small, dilapidated town. There was no sign of life; he was not surprised, however - although as yet there was no rain, and apart from that first flash he hadn't seen any lightning, he had had to mute his hearing against the almost non-stop sound of the thunder - given the threat of the storm he would have expected the locals to remain safely indoors.
At the other end of the town he was able to make out the pale shapes of several tents, with three cars in front of them. He stopped beside the familiar Volvo and made his way towards the one tent that shone brighter than the others, the one that clearly held a light.
Jim was aware that he was not alone; a large catlike shape, slightly blacker than the enveloping darkness, moved silently beside him.
He paused in the doorway of the tent, aware of a weird dichotomy. Although the tent was not more than eight foot square, inside it seemed much larger.
Four men stood against the side wall; two younger ones, one of whom looked terrified while the other looked startled rather than frightened, but it was the look of a man whose long-held belief in something had suddenly been shattered. Just in front of them were two older men. One of them looked worried; the other appeared to be quietly confident.
In front of them, Blair sat in meditative pose, but from the determined expression on his face he was not meditating or even relaxed. A big wolf stood beside him, lips drawn back to show its teeth in a hungry snarl. They were facing a buffalo that stood where a huge rip showed in the tent wall, pawing the ground angrily, clearly being kept from charging by the threat offered by the wolf and the very calmness of the man.
The panther padded forward from beside Jim and stood beside the wolf, its mouth opening in a yawn that showed its huge canine teeth; then Jim walked forward to stand at Blair's other side. He dropped a hand onto Blair's shoulder, offering the younger man his strength.
As if this was a signal, the wolf metamorphosed into a Yupik hunter while the panther changed into a South American warrior, the warrior Jim had seen when he first realized what the panther was. Behind him he heard a gasp, but he ignored it easily; his concentration was on his friend and the two spirits as they faced the angry buffalo.
The buffalo paused, foot raised, then the sound of the thunder faded as it put its foot down slowly; the silence was almost as unnerving as the thunder had been. Then the buffalo too changed shape, becoming a native American in the prime of life.
Shahone looked at the two men, the two spirits, standing between him and the white men he wanted to destroy; and then he looked more closely at those white men, as if he was seeing them clearly for the first time.
Frowning, he looked back at the two spirits. "Where are you from?" he asked, speaking directly to the Yupik. "I know wolves, but you are not of my people."
The Yupik turned his head, directing Shahone's attention to Blair, who said quietly, "Wolf comes from a land far to the north of here; Panther is from a land far to the south. They meet through me."
"You are a shaman."
"Why do you protect the killers?" But there was a touch of uncertainty in his voice, as if he was desperately clinging to a preconception he was unwilling to abandon.
"The white men who are here now were not the killers; they seek to discover how your people lived, and why they were killed. Can you tell me why they were killed?"
Shahone shook his head. "I never knew.
"Our legends told us of the gods who lived in the east, who would return one day. Word of the coming of these men who came from the east, from over the sea in big canoes, preceded them; we believed they were at least the companions of the god. From the way they spoke, I believed they wanted to see how we had used their gifts to us. I brought them here, to the most prosperous village, and they called all the wealth here worthless. Many of their words I did not understand; I never knew why they burned the fields of corn, although I told them that was the only gold we had." He used the Spanish word for 'gold'. "They destroyed my people; all I could do was seek to be avenged by setting my spirit free to kill them."
Blair understood instantly what had happened, and even why; he also knew he couldn't explain it in a way that this spirit from a world of different values would understand. All he could do was persuade it that times had changed, if he could.
"You were avenged," he said. "The man who ordered your people killed is long dead; your vengeance killed him very soon after he left here - a painful, protracted death. But that was over four hundred years ago. Most of those who have died here since were innocent; they knew nothing of your people. The white men who are here now - not even their fathers' fathers' fathers lived in this land at that time, and indeed since they came here they saved the life of one of your people, a child who was bitten by a rattlesnake.
"The killer was a product of his land and his culture, who could not understand your world and your values. The white men here today may not fully understand your world, but they respect it and are trying to learn more about it so that they will understand it better. "It is time for you to let it go, to lay aside your hatred; time for you to rejoin the spirits of your murdered brothers, and rest."
"I don't know where to go," Shahone said. He sounded bewildered, his sole aim in death now lost to him.
The Yupik and the warrior stepped forward. "We will guide you," the Yupik said.
Shahone looked from one to the other, and nodded; all three faded from sight.
Nobody in the tent moved for some seconds; then Blair's head dropped forward as he finally relaxed and his body began to slip sideways. Jim dropped to one knee to support his guide and ease him down to the ground. Stoddard took the three steps needed to take him to Blair's side, where he too knelt, while Ingram encouraged the two younger men over to the table, where all three sank into chairs. Ingram began murmuring, quietly reassuring, too quietly for Blair to hear his words; Jim, who could have heard them, chose not to listen.
After a minute, Blair lifted his head. "I'm all right," he said. "Just... a bit tired. You wouldn't think speaking to a ghost would be all that tiring, would you? Especially since he proved quite easy to persuade, in the end." He looked at Jim. "I don't know how you got here at just the right moment, but I'm glad you did; without you beside me it would have been much harder - Wolf and I alone weren't accomplishing much but a stand-off."
"You'd have got there, Chief," Jim said confidently.
"He's right, Blair," Stoddard agreed. "You'd already stopped the buffalo and were holding him. As soon as he stopped his charge and began to think, you were three-quarters there. I don't deny that having Jim - it is Jim, isn't it?" When they both nodded, he carried on. "Having Jim beside you helped speed things up; but I'm sure you'd have managed - even though you were already tired from your journey here."
"And I might have killed myself in the process," Blair said. "I leaned a lot on Jim's strength, that last few minutes." He turned his head to grin at his friend. "How did you manage? Cochrane... "
"Found dead in his cell, and I suspect Panther had a paw in that. And then I had to follow you to four hundred miles from anywhere."
"Ah, but not four hundred miles *north* of anywhere," Blair replied, his grin widening, the familiarity of the book-based joke lightening his spirits.
Leaving the other three still sitting at the table, Jim and Stoddard helped Blair to his feet and half-carried him from the tent.
"Over here," Stoddard said, and directed them toward one of the smaller tents, clearly visible in the light of a nearly-full moon now that the clouds had vanished. "This one's empty - the students who were in it went home. I'll send for them to come back, now, but tonight, and probably tomorrow night, it's empty."
There was a small table just inside the tent, and Stoddard lit the lamp that stood on it. In its light they saw that the tent also held four sleeping bags laid out on air mattresses and four folding chairs. Stoddard left Jim to support the exhausted Blair while he unfolded one of the chairs. As they lowered Blair carefully onto it, Stoddard said, almost tentatively, "I know I made you drop everything and rush here, but can you stay for a few days - both of you - and see what we're doing here?"
"I'd like that," Blair murmured. "I'm not taking any summer classes, so yes, I can stay a few days."
"Simon gave me two weeks off," Jim said. "I'll have to allow two days to get back to Cascade, so I've got ten full days."
Stoddard nodded, then glanced at his watch. "We'll eat in about an hour," he said. "I'll get Grant to bring you yours; you stay here and relax."
"Doubt I'll be awake," Blair murmured sleepily. "Jim could join you, though."
"I don't think Jim's about to leave you, even to come and eat," Stoddard told him, and Jim grinned in affirmation.
Together, Jim and Stoddard prepared one of the sleeping bags and helped Blair over to it. They helped him remove his shirt, his shoes and jeans, and he slipped into the sleeping bag. Jim pulled it up round his neck; Blair murmured something incomprehensible even to sentinel ears and closed his eyes.
Jim pulled one of the other air mattresses over to lie beside Blair's. "Actually, I'm pretty tired too," he said. "I don't think I can stay awake another hour. Just leave us both to sleep. We'll see you in the morning."
"Are you sure?"
"All right. Goodnight - and thank you both."
Jim watched Stoddard leave, then kicked off his shoes, pulled off his shirt and settled in the second sleeping bag.
Blair rolled over. "Jim?"
Jim reached over and pulled the younger man into a firm embrace. "You know, you're really something, Chief," he said quietly.
He felt the residual tension leave Blair's body, and followed his friend into an exhausted sleep.
It was the start of a week of chaos; the other students, recalled by Stoddard, arrived back that afternoon, and Jim and Blair no longer had a tent to themselves. The people of the township welcomed them, thanking them for releasing their ancestor from his many years trapped as a ghost. It let them all see that the local people too were relieved to be free of the ghost, although it had never harmed them. Luis even said that some of the ones who had left, half afraid of the ghost, might now come home again.
Jim watched, only half interested in the excavation going on but happy that Blair was enjoying it. It was helping his friend relax after the strain of dealing with the long-dead shaman.
During the week, he managed to arrange to have his rental car collected, so that he could travel back with Blair. When they left, they traded off driving every hour and stopped three times for something to eat; when they finally reached Cascade both were tired but not impossibly so, though both were looking forward to several hours of sleep.
Back in the loft, Blair stretched and yawned. "Ah, it's good to be home."
"Yes, it is. Hungry?"
"A bit, but I think I want sleep more than I want food." He yawned again.
Jim grinned. "All right, Rip van Winkle. Sleep well!"
Blair grinned back. "See you in the morning, Jim." He detoured to the bathroom while Jim locked up.
Five minutes later, both men were asleep.