DeeDee Logan shivered. It was a brutally cold night, and although she knew she and her companion had come to this dismal place deliberately, she couldn’t remember why. Or why they should have come without enough clothing; they were both wearing just t-shirts and jeans, no help against the chill that turned their breath to clouds and rimed the mud beneath their feet with ice. It looked like no place she’d ever been before, and right now she fervently hoped she’d never see it again.
But she knew one thing: they were searching for two people. A Native American girl even younger than she was, and a US Cavalry officer. If they didn’t find them, the two would die-and their own future would be in doubt. Well, DeeDee’s own, anyway. She looked up at the boy with her-he was a head taller than she was, and lanky, maybe a year older than her almost-sixteen years, but somehow she knew she could trust him with anything-and wondered not for the first time how they’d come to this. It was all up to them, two kids, really, and it wasn’t fair.
But fair wasn’t the question; survival was, and DeeDee squared her shoulders and peered into the darkness once more.
The moon came out from behind a cloud just as there was a sudden movement off to her left; something small and almost invisible darted through the underbrush. She had an impression of long, flowing hair and a definitely human form, although the figure was far too short even to be a child. Yet it made no secret of its presence; its shadow, cast in the now-brilliant moonlight, flashed across their path as it ran; its arm raised and the hand beckoned to DeeDee, and she grabbed the boy by the arm. "There," she said, pointing. "We have to follow it."
"Follow what?" he asked, and DeeDee realized he hadn’t seen it.
"I’m not sure what it is, but it’s here to guide us," she told him, knowing it was the truth. "It went that way, and it was moving fast. We have to catch up. Come on!"
Unquestioningly he followed as she led, half walking, half running, following the swiftly moving shape into the trees and the darkness. From time to time she’d see another flash of movement, but that was all; the shape, low to the ground and silent, seemed to shimmer in and out of her field of vision, as if it moved in two worlds.
But the night itself was far from silent. The wind moaned around them, carrying the cries and mutterings of people in terrible trouble. The sounds grew louder as the two followed their almost-invisible guide, and as they reached the edge of the trees and came out into a pool of bright moonlight, DeeDee saw that they’d reached the edge of a vast encampment, dotted with makeshift tents, wagons both open and covered, and here and there a fire. She and the boy stopped at its perimeter for a moment and stared. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people clustered there, many as poorly dressed against the cold as she and the boy were, although their clothes were very different-an archaic mix of Native American garments and Western clothing, like something out of an old tintype or a history book. This place was the origin of those terribly sad sounds; the moans and cries came from here.
Still forms lay on the cold ground, some half-in, half-out of the mud. Others sat unmoving, hunched against the cold, or bent over to coax a response from a motionless companion. DeeDee heard weeping, and from somewhere to her right a woman wailed in sudden misery, clutching an infant-sized bundle to her chest in desolation. Even the animals were bone-thin and scraggly, their heads hanging as if in despair, and despite the dreadful cold the stench was nauseating-a mix of death and illness and human waste. Somewhere ahead a voice chanted, accompanied by rattles and drumming. The wind rose, howling through the branches of the trees just behind them, and DeeDee shivered again.
"Let’s get going and get this over with," she said, and the two set off once more.
They seemed to wander forever. The icy mud nearly sucked the running shoes from her feet as they wove their way among the campsites. No one spoke to them and no one even seemed to notice them; DeeDee wondered if their troubles were so great that the presence of two teenagers wasn’t enough to bother with, or if somehow she and her companion couldn’t be seen. The thought vanished as, amid shouts and raucous laughter, a small shape once again darted in front of them. But this time it was a child, not the tiny and mysterious guide who had led them this far. DeeDee and her companion stopped as they saw why the little girl ran. She was being chased by several men, obviously the worse for drink, who hollered at her to stop even as they laughed at her fright.
But then a soldier-the cavalry officer?-stepped out of the darkness and stood before them, training his weapon on them. The men staggered to a ragged, stumbling halt, breathing hard, obviously surprised by the soldier’s appearance and even more by his defense of the Indian child.
They muttered among themselves, and one uttered a drunken laugh before drawing a handgun from the holster at his side and brandishing it unsteadily. Then, before DeeDee and her companion could do anything, the one with the gun shot the soldier. He fired back at almost the same time, but both men fell-and the others turned and fled, the child now forgotten.
But as the man fell, DeeDee caught a glimpse of his face in the firelight and screamed. He was her father.