Michael Spotted Elk wasn’t sure what woke him. He lay in the dark of the Cheyenne lodge and listened. He was getting used to his father’s gentle snoring, that wasn’t it. His mother and little brother breathed deep and steady, comfortably wrapped in their dreams and buffalo-skin blankets.
Something moved outside the lodge. Something big. It spooked him.
Everyone had assured him there were no dangerous animals roaming the Kansas prairie anymore, but he wasn’t sure he believed them. He’d seen those buffalo over in the nearby pasture. And they said the guy who owned them had a pet wolf.
He heard the noise again. He wanted to get up and turn on the lights and find his baseball bat, then maybe peek out a window to see what it was. Only he was in an Indian lodge, a tepee, in the middle of the Great Plains. They didn’t have electricity or windows here, and he wasn’t allowed any modern artifacts.
He did have a lance, though. He pulled on his moccasins and crept to where the skins had been drawn tight over the opening that made do as an entrance to the lodge. He fumbled in the dark, found his bow and quiver of arrows, and passed on them. He couldn’t hit the broadside of a billboard from ten feet. He wasn’t much good with the lance, either, but if there happened to be a ferocious mountain lion, or even a testy prairie dog, out there, he wanted something to put between him and it.
It took Michael a few moments to work the unfamiliar leather straps. When he pulled the hides apart enough to peer out, he could tell it was still before dawn. The moon hung just over the cottonwoods at the west side of their patch of pasture, still bright enough so he could reassure himself no prairie monsters lurked out there, waiting to pounce. He pushed the lance through ahead of him, just in case, and followed it silently.
Their encampment was a quiet little circle of conical tents. The motor coaches, semi truck, and other vehicles that were part of the Public Broadcasting System’s production crew sat, equally silent and encircled, a few hundred yards away. No one seemed to be about. That was nice. At least he would have a few private moments without the camera following his every humiliating failure to properly recreate the lifestyle his ancestors had lived a century and a half ago.
Why had he let his folks talk him into this? Just to be on TV? He scratched a chigger bite and wished he were snuggled into his bed in Phoenix.
It was cool in the moonlight, but not cold. A soft breeze brought fragrant, earthy scents up from the south, something musky and curiously erotic. What isn’t curiously erotic to sixteen-year-old boys?
A shadow emerged from behind the nearest tent and Michael practically impaled himself on his lance as he tried to get it pointed in the right direction.
“It’s only me.”
Daphne Alights on the Cloud stepped into the moonlight, leading one of the band’s ponies. “I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “Thought maybe I’d ride down to the creek. Wanna come?”
Daphne was hot. She was almost two years older than Michael, and so Sports-Illustrated-Swimsuit-Issue stacked that she’d become the subject of all manner of his fantasies in the few days since they’d started filming This Old Tepee.
“Uhh, sure,” he said. He was surprised she wanted anything to do with him. Every time he’d tried to hit on her he’d turned into such a fumble mouth that he’d been certain she’d assigned him the role of last dork on earth to be caught dead with.
“Want a horse?” she asked. “Or do you wanna just double up with me?”
The idea of riding next to her, letting the horse’s gait rock their bodies against each other, was enough to put a strain on the fabric of his breechcloth. He couldn’t ride well. He didn’t want to show her what a nerd he was by falling off the great beast. Worse yet, let her realize exactly how excited he was to be anywhere near her.
“You ride, I’ll run.” It wasn’t far. “I need the exercise.” “OK.” She grabbed a handhold of mane and swung onto the horse’s back. Getting her legs around its girth caused her deerskin dress to hike up enough to send a whole new series of signals inside his breechcloth. He started trotting ahead, leading the way so she wouldn’t notice that, at the moment, he was equipped with more than one lance.
The run to the creek helped rein in his raging hormones. By the time she slid down and tied up the horse, then led the way along the little path through the trees and scrub down to the muddy stream, he was presentable. The relative dusk of moon shadows provided cover.
Just short of where sand had piled up along the near bank and formed a perfect beach, she stopped suddenly and turned to face him.
“Maybe we can take a dip.” Before he could stammer a wildly enthusiastic answer—hey, what was she gonna wear? She couldn’t get in the water in that buckskin dress—she continued. “But first I’ve gotta pee. Wait here, Michael, and don’t look.”
Michael fought the temptation to peek. He didn’t want to mess up this chance. He would have waited forever, as long as there was a possibility he might go skinny dipping with the delicious Daphne.
He kind of needed to pee, too, but when he managed to extract himself from the unfamiliar confines of his breechcloth, he discovered he was far too excited to do any such thing. Just the thought of Daphne, hiking up her skirt a few feet away, was almost too much for him. He knew he’d better tuck himself safely away before she came back and his state of arousal scared her off.
The creek gurgled invitingly…and there was something else—sand grinding, as if something was coming their way. It wasn’t coming from the direction Daphne had taken. He dropped to his hands and knees and peered toward where the road cut off the east end of the pasture that housed their encampment, at the old wooden bridge over the stream. The sound came from there. A silhouette appeared atop the bridge. It was a motorcyclist, idling along with the lights off. Was this someone else who couldn’t sleep, or someone following them? The shadowy biker rumbled across the old wooden structure. Michael stood and watched and made sure it disappeared behind the brush on the far side of the creek. The sound of its passing was soon inaudible.
“What was that?” Daphne was straightening her leather dress as she stepped back onto the path. And then she was looking down at him and he realized he had forgotten to stuff himself back inside his breechcloth. And she was saying, “Oh! I know what that is,” and reaching down to pull up the hem of her leather skirt again. He forgot all about the motorcycle when he realized she wasn’t wearing anything underneath.
# # #
Talk about a quickie, Daphne thought. He was already done before she could more than prop herself against the trunk of a cottonwood. Good thing she hadn’t gotten her dress all the way off or the bark might have scraped her back.
“That was fast.” She couldn’t keep the disappointment out of her voice. He was breathing too hard to answer. It didn’t matter. She had yet to meet a teenage boy who wasn’t multi-orgasmic, and they were usually desperate enough for what she’d just provided to do anything to have it again. She was sure Michael would perform as asked for the promise of more.
Maybe finding a young kid like him wasn’t such a bad deal. She could teach him the things she enjoyed. It wasn’t like, out here playing Cheyenne, she had many other ways to entertain herself. What with young Lancelot here, and the untested promise of the cute guys on the camera crew, this might turn out to be an amusing way to spend her spring after all.
The Cheyenne wouldn’t do it like this. Hell, from what the old chief had told them, what they’d just done might have gotten them tossed out of the tribe. If they really were mid-nineteenth century Cheyenne, the rules demanded she kept herself pure for marriage. Her very chaste courtship could have gone on for years. Daphne knew she wouldn’t have made a good Cheyenne. Not since she was thirteen.
Michael was leaning against her and breathing hard. From the way he was moving, she thought he might be ready for more even sooner than she had expected. She pushed him back and stepped away from the tree so she could finish pulling off her dress. This time, she would control the action.
Then she heard the noise. “What’s that? Is there someone over by the road?”
Michael muttered something about a motorcycle. His mind was elsewhere.
It wasn’t a motorcycle. What she heard sounded like footsteps, fast and regular, like someone running. She stepped away from Michael a little and moved to where she could see the bridge. Sure enough, it was a jogger. He was a big guy, moving smoothly, out running with his dog. Neither the man nor the animal seemed to notice them. Not surprising, she thought, since they were well back from the road in deep shadow, and what little breeze there was wouldn’t have carried their scent toward the bridge. She watched until the pair disappeared. Michael began giving some none too subtle attention to her backside. She reached around and pulled him in front of her and started whispering very specific instructions in his ear.
Something whistled through the underbrush. An early bird, maybe, though she had to grin to think how badly she had beaten it to its prey. The thought slipped from her mind like quicksilver. Michael was doing his best to follow directions and she was rapidly losing focus on everything else.
To her surprise, Michael dropped to his knees in front of her. She hadn’t expected him to get to the advanced stuff nearly this fast. His head came forward, brushed her belly, moved down… And then he crumpled between her legs and the only shaft he pointed at her was the arrow protruding from his back.
# # #
Mad Dog showered and shaved after his run. Shaving, of course, meant his head as well as his face. His hair was naturally curly and couldn’t be coaxed to produce the braids he would have preferred. If Benteen County’s only Cheyenne shaman couldn’t wear braids, he wasn’t going to settle for anything less than bald. It might not be a traditional Native American look, but it had worked for Yul Brenner and Patrick Stewart. It was dramatic, so it worked for Mad Dog too.
It was unusual for him to skip his post-run exercises, but his left knee was pretty sore from the fall he took when Hailey knocked his legs out from under him. He was still surprised about that. She’d never before even brushed him when they went running, and they’d been doing it almost every morning since she’d come into his life, a wolf-hybrid rescue. It was a puzzle. Maybe she’d been trying to protect him from that motorcycle that came bursting out of the brush up the road a few seconds later. That was another puzzle.
Mad Dog and Hailey shared their normal breakfasts—ground sirloin and kibbles for Hailey, a couple of chocolate chip cookies and an apple for him, washed down with flat Dr. Pepper. He liked it that way, and was constantly doing unplanned kitchen clean-ups when he failed to get the twist top screwed back on tight while he was releasing bubbles from the bottle after a bit of wild shaking. What most folks shook was their heads, when they witnessed Mad Dog’s efforts to decarbonate his favorite beverage. Not that they were surprised. They expected weird behavior from the local oddball.
Mad Dog checked the strange message on his answering machine again before he left the house. It was a woman’s voice and it sounded hauntingly familiar. She wasn’t a wrong number. She’d used his name.
“I’m sorry to call so early, Mad Dog, but I wanted to catch you before you got out of the house. I’m coming to Buffalo Springs this afternoon. I plan to attend the Buffalo Springs Day celebration and…
“I’m saying this all wrong, but this is important. I’d like to talk to you. I’ll…I’ll call you later, or I’ll see you at the celebration. That is, if you want to see me…”
She’d sighed, then broken the connection without saying goodbye. Or mentioning who she was. He should know. The voice was so familiar—and so beyond his ability to put a name or face to it.
Well, if whoever it was that wanted to see him planned to be at Buffalo Springs Day—the annual celebration of the town’s long- lost glory and class/family reunions, all rolled into one—then he was most likely to discover who she was if he drove to Buffalo Springs. Things wouldn’t get started until the potluck at noon. Then there’d be the parade: half a dozen convertibles bearing local politicians and pretty girls and the latest Buffalo Springs High Homecoming Queen, a dozen duded up horseback riders, two clowns—one the rodeo version, the other, a woman who couldn’t decide whether she was a mime or the circus variety, a juggler, an Uncle Sam on stilts, and the high school marching band. The evening would be topped off by a banquet and dance at the school gym. Big doings for a small community.
Mad Dog thought he might drop by the courthouse as soon as he got to town. Stick his head in the sheriff ’s office. Mrs. Kraus should be at her post behind the reception desk by the time he got there. There wasn’t much that went on in Buffalo Springs that Mrs. Kraus didn’t know about.
The sun formed a brilliant orb just above the eastern horizon, glowing with the promise of a perfect day. Mad Dog and Hailey let themselves out the back door and wove through the tulips and irises his mother had planted outside her kitchen. They bloomed in their full glory, thanks to a warm spring accompanied by ample rain. The county’s wheat crop looked similarly promising, which meant the price for a bushel would be absurdly low.
For years, Mad Dog had cemented his role as local oddball by being the only person in the county to own a Saab. No more. Even Swedish engineers hadn’t been able to build a product capable of surviving the confluence of two hundred thousand miles and Mad Dog’s lead foot. The result, a catastrophic exam- ple of metal fatigue, brought in repair estimates so far beyond the vehicle’s worth that his considerable sentimental attachment waned. He’d replaced it. It was time, he’d thought, to show the community how age was mellowing his peculiar streak and that he could blend into the local vehicular environment of pickups, sedans, hatchbacks, and SUVs.
Mad Dog pulled the garage door open. The garage seemed bigger than it used to. Fortunately, the bright-red Mini Cooper with the British flag emblazoned on its roof was roomier on the inside than its squat, boxy exterior made it appear. Hailey liked the rear seat. The lack of foot room back there didn’t trouble her. Mad Dog ushered her in, folded himself behind the wheel, opened the windows so Hailey could satisfy her wind-in-the-face addiction, and let the supercharged engine whisk him out of the driveway and onto the road. He found his way to the blacktop by pulling his John Deere cap low enough to shade his eyes. It failed to screen a pickup with a flat tire which blocked most of the intersection. The driver, standing in the only vacant spot Mad Dog might have used to pass, madly waved him down.
Hailey seemed to realize this would be a temporary stop. She checked out the guy and the truck, then turned around three times and settled herself to wait. Mad Dog stepped out to see what aid he could offer.
“Thanks for stopping.” The guy was young and handsome and clean cut by modern standards. His earring and nasal stud made it unlikely he was a Kansan, as did his lack of twang. “We’ve got a flat. I’m a total nerd at mechanical stuff. Like, I can’t even find the spare.”
His passenger was doing a better job. She was crouched and peering under the rear bumper. “It’s here,” she announced. “Is the jack under here too?”
“That’d probably be somewhere in the cab,” Mad Dog told them.
“Only Jack I know about is my passenger,” the kid said with an embarrassed shrug. “And I’m Chad.”
Mad Dog introduced himself and offered to look for the jack. There weren’t many able-bodied Kansans who would leave a tourist with a flat stuck by the side of the road. Getting two people in the Mini with him and Hailey wouldn’t be easy because most people got nervous about crowding a wolf. Maybe he could change the tire for them without getting too dirty.
He started toward the cab as the girl stood up behind the bumper and began brushing dirt off her jeans. Mad Dog glanced at her and lost his ability to move or speak or even reason a little. The girl was saying something, only he couldn’t work out what it was.
“Janie!” he croaked, suddenly knowing whose voice had been on his answering machine. “Janie Jorgenson.”
It had been more than forty years since the two of them were voted most perfect couple by their classmates at Buffalo Springs High—football hero and head cheerleader, best athlete and best student. Jesus, how could she still look so good. She had hardly changed at all. Still had that gorgeous blond hair, that elfin face that hinted you were in for fun and trouble. He hadn’t seen her since she gave him back his ring—threw it back, actually, on that summer night in 1962. He wanted to open his arms and see if she would come into them.
She just stood there and looked perplexed.
“I’m Jack,” she said, “or Jackie. Janie Jorgenson is my grandmother.”
# # #
The sheriff was slick with sweat. A small, fatuous smile hung on his face, unrecognized and not easily removed.
Judy sighed, deep and satisfied. She bent and kissed his bruised lips, gently this time, rolled off, and went across the room to the window, backlit by the rising sun.
It was hard to believe she was midway between forty and fifty. He knew he saw her through a lover’s eyes, but he also knew she really was still spectacular. It didn’t matter whether it took hard work and careful diet these days, instead of youth and luck. Judy could turn heads in any crowd.
“Wow!” the sheriff breathed. He almost tacked on a “What brought that on?” but he wasn’t sure he wanted this wild and lusty moment to end just yet. He knew his wife well enough to understand asking why was not the thing to do.
Not that they didn’t make love anymore. They did, and pretty regularly. Perhaps too regularly, as the years and their schedules increasingly forced their intimacies into whatever time slots were open. But they didn’t make love like this, not usually. The sheriff couldn’t remember the last time he’d hit the trifecta. Hell, even doubles had become rare. This had been like when they were first married and desire and availability had suddenly been evenly matched. He had wakened from a sound sleep to gentle but insistent caresses. Then once was not enough, nor was twice. They couldn’t get enough of each other. He sighed and wondered whether he would have the strength to get through his day…and how he might lure her back for more.
“God I love you, Englishman,” she said. Judy was one of the few people who got away with calling him Englishman. He had the misfortune of having a brother whose nickname, as high school football hero, had been Mad Dog. Once you had a Mad Dog, and a last name like English, you naturally became Englishman.
Their school days were long past, and their nicknames might have vanished as well, except that Mad Dog had taken their mother’s claim to be a half-breed Cheyenne seriously enough to commit himself to that culture, and to legally adopt the alias. Now, everyone in Benteen County knew Mad Dog and Englishman, but only a select few called Mad Dog’s little brother anything other than Sheriff English to his face.
He realized, suddenly, that Judy was standing in an open window and presenting the neighbors with a viewing opportunity more likely on certain streets in Amsterdam than Buffalo Springs. If anyone saw her, they might complain to the school board. Not many people in Benteen County, Kansas, would think the Vice Principal of Buffalo Springs High should be offering sex education visual aids to anyone passing down Cherry Street this morning. The sheriff thought about telling her, but he was enjoying his view of her delightful bottom too much, and he didn’t have the energy to spare. Not while there was a chance she might come back to their bed again.
“I want to go to Paris,” Judy said.
The sheriff smiled. “Why would anyone want to go to Texas?” he teased.
She swung around, closing her hands into fists and planting them on the hips with which she might now be mooning their neighbors. The view from this side was even better, he decided, though it was plain she wasn’t thinking about jumping his bones anymore.
“I’m not kidding, Englishman.”
He knew she wasn’t. She’d wanted to go to Paris—the one in France—for as long as he could remember.
“You promised you’d take me.”
That was also true. Though he’d convinced himself that the fulfillment of that promise could be put off until their girls were on their own and he and Judy had achieved those golden years that would mark their retirement.
“A well is a hole in the ground,” Judy said. “As I’m constantly telling my students who’d like to find one to hide in because they can’t give me the answer I want.”
“This isn’t a good time. I mean, what with our relations with the French over Iraq.”
“And terrorist threats, and we can’t really afford it, and I’ll bet you can come up with at least a hundred other reasons. You always have. I’m starting to think you always will. That’s why I went online this morning and made reservations. Sometimes you can get astounding deals at the last minute. I did. We fly out of Wichita this afternoon.”
The sheriff sat up in bed. He was relieved to see that the nearest neighbor’s windows were tightly closed and the blinds secured. He was less relieved by what he saw in Judy’s eyes.
She stalked across the room to the dresser and picked up a couple of sheets of paper—computer printout. “Here they are, Wichita to Atlanta to Paris. I’ve got us booked into a little hotel for a couple of nights while we get a feel for the city.”
“Judy, I can’t just walk away from my job.” He was going to tell her that she couldn’t either, only he realized it was the end of May. Classes at Buffalo Springs High were over. She’d finished grading all her tests and papers. No one would put up much of a fuss if she didn’t show for graduation.
“Why not? You haven’t taken a real day off in years. It’s not like we’re in the middle of a crime wave. Nothing serious has happened in Benteen County in more than two years.
“I mean, really, Englishman. Why not? The girls are in college. They’re old enough to take care of themselves and they’re headed for summer school. You’ve finally got competent help. You said this Deputy Parker is the real thing—the first legitimate law enforcement officer you’ve ever had. Put Parker in charge. Things won’t fall apart in two weeks. Please, Englishman. This is important to me.”
The sheriff felt like he’d been trapped in a room to which all the exits were sealed. He really didn’t want to go to Paris, of all places. Well, actually, he didn’t want to go anywhere. He was one of those people for whom the favorite part of travel was coming home. But he had promised, and he did love Judy. There wasn’t really anything going on in Benteen County just now. Except the sound of their phone ringing.
Maybe that would be a good excuse. He picked it up and it was.
# # #
Mrs. Kraus stepped out of Bertha’s Café into the most beautiful morning she could imagine. It was time for her to clock in behind the reception desk over at the sheriff ’s office in the courthouse, but not before she took a moment to appreciate the glory of this rare and perfect spring day. Weather in Benteen County tended to extremes of heat and cold, punc- tuated by storms that seemed like the personal wrath of God, but in between…like just now, this morning. She took a breath and knew why she lived here, and would never dream of living anywhere else.
The rising sun turned the streets of Buffalo Springs into swaths of gold. They gleamed, resembling the fabled pavement for which Coronado had once come searching. Or maybe not, since the sun was also highlighting verdant clumps of Bermuda that pushed through cracks in the pavement, and a profusion of wildflowers that most folks would call weeds, blooming in Veterans Memorial Park across the street.
Mrs. Kraus was pleasantly bloated after a Bertha’s breakfast special. She would have been drowsy if she hadn’t accompanied it with several cups of Bertha’s coffee, strong enough, it had been rumored, to dissolve an occasional spoon. The combination of cholesterol and caffeine induced a heightened awareness in her, an almost drugged state of well-being and alertness. She was acutely conscious of meadowlarks flirting in the park and the overwhelmingly bawdy perfume with which spring’s flowers tantalized the gentle breeze. A honey bee buzzed her, briefly considered whether her flowered smock was sluttish enough for a stop, then rushed to the welcoming embrace of a clump of sunflowers between the sidewalk and the curb.
Fecund, that’s what the morning was. Fecund wasn’t a word Mrs. Kraus had found much use for in recent years, especially not since her beloved Floyd had passed on. But fecund, she realized, was the only appropriate description for this soft spring morning. Kansas, it seemed, was in the mood to procreate.
She stepped across the street and strolled toward the county courthouse. From a block away, and in this spectacular lighting, it looked like something out of a picture postcard. Up close, she knew, the building and the government it housed were in serious need of repair.
She passed a pair of young Mexican men trying to start the county’s mower so they could wade into those weeds across the street from the church. She wondered if they were illegals. Surely not, if they were working for the county—though some of the supervisors were cheap enough to hire off the books and pay below minimum wage. Then she stopped worrying about it because the men were peeling off their shirts and their lean, bronze bodies rippled with youthful muscle. Firm butts did nice things for their blue jeans, too.
Mrs. Kraus mentally slapped herself upside the head. Fecund, she decided, might not be putting it strongly enough. She glanced at her cheap Chinese wristwatch—8:09—and lengthened her stride, heading for the courthouse’s front doors. For the first time she could remember, she was going to be late for work.
The doors weren’t locked. They were warped too badly for the bolt to match the hole in which it was supposed to seat. Besides, they didn’t guard anything of value, other than official records stored in the building. And there was nearly always someone in the sheriff ’s office to keep an eye on things. Usually, that would be her, working the phones and radios and holding down the reception desk.
Locked or not, she had trouble getting the doors open. Then she noticed why. Someone had jammed a short piece of pipe so that it was stuck against the base of the doors. It was so obvious and out of place that she couldn’t imagine why she hadn’t noticed before. Odd, she thought, that someone would block the entry. Kids, maybe. She didn’t know. She kicked at the thing so she could go relieve Deputy Wynn and start earning her less than satisfactory hourly wage.
The pipe was really jammed in there. She had to kick the thing half a dozen times before it popped loose and began to roll down the steps and onto the walk that sloped to the street and the park beyond. She pulled the door open and started to go inside. The pipe rolled off the edge of the walk and disappeared into the ditch that drained the courthouse lawn. Then part of the ditch disappeared, along with a chunk of sidewalk, some of which rained down around her. What she’d been kicking the hell out of, Mrs. Kraus realized, had been a pipe bomb.