Smokehidden Hills Stable

  • Smoke Tree Stables offers a Therapeutic program that focuses on what the horse can bring into the process of insight, change and healing. Group activities with the horse will involve various themes including boundaries, self-esteem, relationships, and mindfulness.
  • Nestled in the foothills between Fresno and Visalia, Sequoia Hills Stables is located in Woodlake, California. It rests beneath the peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains, equidistant from the entrances to Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks.

Smoky's Stables USA, Inc. Smoky's Stables USA, Inc. Filed as an Articles of Incorporation in the State of California and is no longer active.This corporate entity was filed approximately forty years ago on Thursday, September 11, 1980, according to public records filed with California Secretary of State. This year we selected Smokemont Riding Stables and they didn't disappoint. The trail was beautiful and the waterfall at the end of the trail was gorgeous. The only thing I would recommend they change is a different path coming back to allow riders to experience more of the beautiful scenery.

Dorothy and Loren were strolling arm in arm along the main road in the bright, warm May morning. They had time on their hands – Brian was minding the Gazette, and at the store Grace was choosing a new hat, and looked like she wanted to ponder it very carefully.
“I insist, Loren,” Dorothy said. “You ain’t giving Cloud Dancin’ his fair share of the profits.”
“Dorothy, dear, you got any idea of how vocal he is in defendin’ his profits?” Loren kicked a pebble. “He don’t need your support, I tell you!”
“I know that, Loren, but if you spent less time arguin’ with him, your business would vastly improve.”
“Dorothy, my business couldn’t be better, thank you, an’ I’d be glad if you...” He stopped and pointed to Michaela’s clinic. “Look at that!”
Sgt. McKay was sitting on the bench just outside the door, fanning himself with his hat. He saw them and nodded a greeting.
They exchanged a look and joined him. “You all right, Sergeant?”
He got up for the lady. “Ma’am, Mr. Bray. I’m quite fine, thanks.”
“You look awful!” exclaimed Loren. “Tell him, Dorothy.”
“You do, Sergeant. You look as if you’d not eaten for a week. Sit down, don’t exert yourself. I hope your turn comes soon.”
“My turn?”
“For Michaela to visit you, of course!”
Jake was walking by with a tome under his arm. “Hey, Loren, borrowed your wallpaper catalogue, Teresa wants to – “ He noticed the earnest small cluster. “What’s the matter?”
“Sgt. McKay’s ill,” said Loren helpfully.
“Actually I...”
“You look like hell,” agreed Jake, coming up to them. “Let me see.”
“Really, Mr. Slicker, no need of that. Dr. Quinn is...”
“I been treatin’ people in this town for years ‘fore she came,” he said gruffly. He took McKay’s wrist. “Pulse’s fast.” He looked closely into his perplexed eyes. “Dilated pupils.” He had learnt that phrase from Michaela, but he sure wasn’t going to admit that right then. He placed a hand on the sergeant’s brow. “You’re hot! You got a bad fever. All in all I’d say... influenza.”
“Influenza?” said Dorothy and Loren, jumping away from McKay.
Jake too moved back a step. “Get yourself at once to your wife’s home an’ stay there,” he warned. They all disappeared quickly down the road.
McKay stared after them, then sat down again, shaking his head.
The door opened and a smiling Michaela looked out. “Sergeant? You can come in now.”
For a moment he didn’t move, staring up at her. Then he got up and went into the clinic, closing the door behind him.
Alison was sitting on the examination table. She lifted only her eyes, and a sweet smiling blush diffused on her face as she watched him come in. McKay looked from her to Michaela and back to Alison, and stepped forward to put his hands on her shoulders.
“About the middle of November,” Michaela was saying. “You’ll become the proud mother and father of your child. Everything will be all right.”
Alison got up, without taking her eyes off McKay’s. He caressed her hair and she laid her hands on his chest. They looked at each other as if they had indeed a slight fever, light-headed and flushed. There was such a moving look in his blue eyes, a smile that slowly distended his lips and relaxed his eyebrows. He bent as if to kiss her mouth, then placed his lips on her forehead. She closed her eyes blissfully, her wish granted, their wish.
“Just a warning, Alison,” added Michaela firmly. “You’re in great shape, but it’s your first child - and I know something about it. Don’t overexert yourself. You have to decide: live at your farm or up at the fort. You must put an end to your rogue nights off.” She smiled.
Alison sighed, laying her face against McKay’s shoulder. Then she opened her eyes and gave a tough look at Michaela. “I can’t leave the farm. I just can’t afford another hired help. I don’t want to get indebted with Preston again. Besides –“
McKay nodded. “Besides, I may not be at the fort from now on. There’s a Captain Bannon up North who needs reinforcements. Marlowe’s inclined to send me.”
Michaela frowned. “You mean – against the Indians?”
“Not if I can avoid it,” answered McKay, sternly. “Anyway it’s all still in the makin’. I don't know the details. Nobody’s made a decision yet.”
Michaela looked concerned. “I know you’ll make the right choice, Sergeant.” She took a deep breath, looked around and lifted her fine eyebrows. “Sort of a slow morning, isn’t it? I’ll give a look outside to see if anybody’s waiting for me.” She smiled at Alison, then went out and closed the door.
Alison watched her go amusedly, then turned to McKay and embraced him tight. Finally their lips met. They stayed like that for long minutes, alternating deep soft kisses with whispered words of love. He gently pulled away from her and placed a hand on her belly. “Middle of November... does this mean...”
“Did they take you in the Army without checking if you can count, McKay?” she said wickedly.
“Valentine’s Day,” he concluded, amazed.
“Seems so. Couple of rather busy days, that.”
“But – this means it’s three months... This means when Fiona tried to kill me you were already...”
“Yes.”
“Oh God. An’ when we quarrelled at Fort Lafayette...”
“Yes.”
“An’ that day you wrestled me on the kitchen floor for the last muffin...”
“Terence... yes. I was pregnant all the time. But I felt well. I just thought I was getting fat, I eat more when you're here. And I’ve been feeling sick in the morning since I was a girl, and my monthly’s always been everything but monthly, so...”
“But didn’t Dr. Quinn –“
“I thought she’d had enough of me, I beleaguered her all the time for the first five months of our marriage...”
“Did you?” he said, moved.
She nodded, smiling.
He kept touching her gently, very curious. “Do you feel something already?”
“No, not yet. If I think about it, yes, I know there’s somebody down there...”
He smiled. “I know, too, I can’t tell how.” He looked at her, suddenly worried. “You look so pale. You sure you can handle mornin’ sickness?”
Alison shrugged. “Why, I told you... that – ooh, what’s this... oooohhh, I’m gonna be sick!” she moaned, doubling over.
McKay grabbed her, making her sit down. “Not here! Come on, breathe... all right... that’s better.” She had indeed paled, and sweat had broken out on her forehead. He sat on the examination table with her, circling her shoulders with his arm. “Shall I call Dr. Quinn?”
“No, it’s going away... ugghhh.” She put a hand on her mouth and waited for the next wave of nausea to pass. She glared at him. “Just stop talking about it, McKay!”
Then she burst into laughter and hugged him. It was contagious. Such a rare sight to see him laugh too, showing small even teeth and looking incredibly young. His eyes held all the light of the warm day outside. Hers were unfathomable velvet, her skin glowing, her lips soft. He kissed her once again, then whispered in her ear, “Let's go, now.”
Michaela was talking with a very apprehensive Dorothy when McKay and Alison got out of the clinic, arm in arm. He paid the doctor, thanked her with a nod and two fingers raised to his hat, and went towards the horses with his wife.
“Is he gonna stay away for some time?” asked Dorothy, concerned.
“I’m afraid so,” Michaela nodded.
“Is it very bad?”
“What?”
“His illness.”
“His illness? Dorothy, Sgt. McKay is perfectly all right! What makes you think he’s ill?”
“Well, why else has he come to see you?”
Michaela looked around. “It’s supposed to be a secret.”
“I won’t tell anybody – unless, of course, it threatens the safety of the town...”
“Oh no, Dorothy!” laughed Michaela. “Alison’s pregnant.”
“Oh. Oh!” Dorothy put her hands on her reddening cheeks. “Oh, dear! What wonderful news!” She hid her mouth and started giggling.
“What’s the matter now?” smiled Michaela.
“Jake diagnosed influenza to him.”
The doctor began laughing too. “You mean Jake mistook a pregnant wife for a case of influenza?!”
Dorothy put her arms around her stomach. “Ah, not bein’ able to tell it at the saloon!”
“Not yet,” said Michaela menacingly. They laughed again. “Poor Jake, he’s excused after all... indeed it looked like influenza, but it was more like a case of the jitters... a very bad case!”
They laughed even harder.
“It’s not fair to the sergeant,” said Michaela at last, drying her eyes. “He’s in for bad times. Alison barely manages already, and he...” She stopped.
“What did you mean, you’re afraid he’s gonna stay away?”
“Dorothy, I don’t know if...”
She looked at Michaela with friendly reproach. “I thought you knew you could trust me.”
“I do,” nodded the doctor with a brief smile. “It seems there’s going to be an expedition against the Indians in the North.”
“Oh no... not the Tongue River Valley Cheyenne, I hope!”
“I don’t know. He’s very doubtful about it. He mentioned a Captain Bannon – it’s not the first time I’ve heard this name, though I can’t remember where.”
“I’ve heard of him too, an’ it was nothin’ good. Oh, Michaela, will this ever stop?”
“Maybe there’s something we can do,” Michaela said, resolutely.
A knock on Colonel Marlowe’s door.
“Come in.”
“Mornin’, sir,” said McKay, entering the office. He took off his hat. “You wished to see me?”
“Yeah. How’s your bout of ‘flu?”
McKay stared at him, immediately on the defensive. “Sir?”
“Just a rumour from the town,” explained Marlowe. “Not much in the mood for jokes, today, are we?”
“Sorry, sir.”
“All right, sit down.” The colonel’s voice became businesslike. He pulled out a map and a stack of papers from under his trilobite, squared them on the desk and leaned back, looking at McKay as he took place in front of him. “Here’s the latest news from the North,” he said. “Some gold miners set up camp near a rocky outcrop, Eagle Top here. Been terrorised by a band of Sioux Dog Soldiers - a mix of tribes, Oglala, Hunkpapa, you name 'em - led by a brave called Two Streams. Comes outta nowhere, strikes hard, then disappears for days.'
McKay examined the map. 'Pretty close to the Black Hills,' he said. 'That's the sacred territory of the Sioux.'
'Not that the miners care about it,' Marlowe said. 'There's quite a mess up there, what with the Army bein' sent to investigate the Black Hills in forces, Red Cloud tryin' to keep his men under control, Sittin' Bull screamin' bloody murder an' all. Eagle Top's a bit outta the main fray, luckily or unfortunately, you decide - Custer don't wanna waste time with it, so he passed the buck to Captain Bannon; but now Bannon's had enough, an' wants to solve the problem.'
McKay nodded. 'What exactly's been happenin'?'
Marlowe pushed the stack of papers over the map. 'Got quite a lotta reports here – no reason to think they’re exaggerated. We know the routine.”
McKay leafed through the papers. He was more of an expert in Indian atrocities than he would have liked, and the words his gaze fell on sounded true.
Marlowe didn’t look at him while he read. “Bannon says his lads are beginnin’ to be unnerved by their guerrilla techniques,” he went on. “He’s askin’ for reinforcements with troops experienced in this kind of things. You’ve had quite a lot of experience with Dog Soldiers, an’ you did a good job down here in Colorado Springs two years ago.”
“Depends on whom you ask,” McKay said ironically.
Marlowe glowered at him. “They’re askin’ for you. You pick twenty men of your choice an’ start tomorrow.”
The sergeant kept silent. At last he said, “If it’s an order, I haven’t got much of an option. Am I dismissed, sir?”
“You’re not!” exclaimed Marlowe. “You gettin’ insubordinate, lad? Livin’ in this town ain’t doin’ you no good.”
McKay remained at his place, fingers playing restlessly with the strap of his hat.
“Now listen to me,” said Marlowe, in a softer tone, “I’m glad you’re the one who’s goin’ there, McKay. You’re a sensible man. I don’t like what's happenin' up there. This mission’ll mean a lot to you personally, too.”
“Why, sir?”
“You’re long overdue for a promotion.”
“Sgt. O’Connor’s report notwithstandin’?”
“Scrap O’Connor. What’s this obsession of yours, anyway? He’s dead!”
McKay shrugged.
“Sergeant,” said Marlowe, “you been havin’ trouble with this lately?”
‘This’ had no precise connotations. The colonel had made a circular gesture around the room. Yet its significance was quite precise.
“Yes, sir,” McKay admitted.
Marlowe let out his breath. “Look - I can get you outta the mission. Influenza, hm? That’s actually a good idea. I keep you here at the fort for some weeks, then you ‘recover’; but alas, your health’s compromised, an’ you resign from the Army.”
McKay lifted his eyes with alarm.
“I know,” said again the colonel, “I’m the one who stopped you from doing just that, last September. I’m still convinced you’re the best in your trade. But I’m tryin’ to be realistic. This won’t be the last time the Army moves against the Indians. It’ll just get worse an’ worse. I don’t wanna - no, I can’t deal with your conscience every time, an’ neither can you, Terence. I’m givin’ you two options. Either you renounce the mission, an’ the Army, or you go on this mission, you get promoted an’ keep your mouth shut for the rest of your career.”
“I can’t resign,” said McKay slowly. “I wouldn’t know what else to do.”
“Rubbish! You’re young an’ resourceful. If you say you wouldn’t want to do anythin’ else – that’s more like you. But that’s part of the problem, ain’t it?”
The sergeant stared at the worn-out surface of the desk. A promotion meant a higher pay. It meant being able to hire a regular help and let Alison take care of her child – their child! - at leisure, maybe getting them to live permanently up at the fort with him, without all the added stress of being worried about the farm. Having the baby to take care of would also allow her to keep to herself and consort less with all those Army wives she so thoroughly detested.
“You can think about it,” added Marlowe.
McKay shook his head. “No need of that, sir. I accept.”
The colonel looked at him, almost disappointed. He nodded and rustled together the papers once again. “Very well. Choose your men and brief ’em.” He handed him the papers. “Then report here at six a.m. sharp tomorrow. Now you’re dismissed, Sergeant.”
For a moment, McKay didn’t move. Those words carried an ominous echo. He remembered the agony of parting from Alison before the Red Needle. He had irrationally hoped such a thing would never happen again, and yet he had to accept its inevitability. The way the options were presented, he had no alternative. And now he knew with absolute clarity what his future life would be like, after that brief spell he had believed he could live in a compromise.
He rose from the chair, saluted and went out.
Corporal Winters was leaning against the corral fence, throwing small apples to the horses and trying to be polite to a superior. “I don’t know, Sgt. Flaherty,” he said, “Sgt. McKay looked perfectly all right to me.”
“Influenza, I tell ye,” reiterated Flaherty. “At least that’s what they say in town.”
“Colonel Marlowe wouldn’t have called him, in that case,” said Corporal O’Malley. “He’d have quarantined him.”
“Well, there he is,” said Winters. “You can ask him.”
McKay strode towards them and didn’t wait to be close to call out. “Winters, choose nineteen men. Have to report tomorrow at six a.m., equipped to go North.”
“Damn itchy woollen underwear, sir?”
“The very one.”
“You sure ‘bout six a.m.?”
“Another complaint an’ it’s three a.m. for you.”
Winters nodded resignedly. So that was it. The rumours that most interested him were true – they were going to fight the Sioux with Captain Bannon.
Flaherty started off after the already departing McKay. “Hey, Terry,” he said, “no chance you’re takin’ me with you?”
McKay turned and answered slowly. “I can’t have another sergeant as subordinate, Flaherty. By the way, tell somebody else I caught the flu an’ I’ll have you reprimanded.”
“Don’t ye be so touchy, now. Ain’t tellin’ nobody. Glad yer goin’ anyway. A great opportunity for ye to –“
McKay stopped him with a pointed finger. “You never learn, Flaherty,” he said. He turned his shoulders and stalked away.
“They say Bannon’s good,” O’Malley said. “A veteran of the war – handled many shootouts with Dog Soldiers.”
Winters shrugged. “I’ve heard he’s a martinet.”
“I’ve heard he’s a sort of renegade,” Flaherty added, coming back. “But his men adore him.”
The young corporal threw the last apple. “We’ll see,” he said, and started off to gather his nineteen men.
Sitting on his bunk in the NCO’s quarters, McKay was preparing his things. His blue overcoat lay neatly on the mattress, along with a small pile of folded underwear. He wanted to have everything ready for the departure; he had every intention of spending the rest of the day in Colorado Springs on various errands. He was rummaging for his maps in the trunk at the foot of the bed, when a private looked in. “Scuse me, sir,” he said, “but Colonel Marlowe would like to talk to you again.”
“I thought he was through briefin’ me,” said McKay, closing the trunk and getting up.
“Two scouts volunteered to join you in your mission,” explained the soldier.
“Two scouts?” repeated the sergeant as they walked towards Headquarters’ porch. He wasn’t thrilled with taking some strangers with him. This mission was sensitive, and he preferred to have only reliable people around. On the other hand, he knew little of the territory. “Well, if them's trustworthy, so much for the better.”
“See for yourself, sir,” said the private, opening the door of Marlowe’s office. Unsuspecting, he stepped inside.
The two scouts were standing before the colonel’s desk, poker-faced.
“Mornin’, McKay,” said Sully.
“Ha ho,” said Cloud Dancing.
The sergeant froze.
“Guess you all know each other,” said Marlowe.
“Is this a joke?” asked McKay, trying to keep his composure. “Do you – do you two know anything about the Sioux?”
“Sort of.”
“A little.”
McKay sighed. Then he turned to Marlowe. “I can’t bring them with me, sir. If Bannon asked for me, it means he knows what’s been goin’ on here.”
“That was two years ago,” said Sully. “We been fully accepted back into the respectable society.”
“But what’s the use?” exclaimed the sergeant. “How would you help me up there?”
“You been called on as an Indian expert. You’ll just bring with you two more Indian experts. In case of talks with the Sioux, they’ll give more credit to us. An’ if it comes to dealin’ with bloodthirsty soldiers, we’ll add the weight of our opinion.”
“I do know the weight of your opinion, thank you, Sully,” McKay said dryly.
“I ain’t gonna blow up anythin’, you have my word.”
McKay looked at them, almost with gratitude. “I’d be glad of your help. But what if somethin’ happens? Bannon’s spoken of as another Custer. What if he turns on you?”
“Why should he?” asked Cloud Dancing. “As of now we are two free and honest men.”
You know why, Cloud Dancin’!” answered McKay. “You always were a free an’ honest man, for all that it mattered. I was able to defend you at the reservation, but I’ll count for nothin’ in Bannon’s troop! You’ll only get yourself into trouble.”
“The whole Indian nation is in trouble,” answered Cloud Dancing. “It will not be safer if we stay hidden. If we can avert just one more act of injustice, save just one more life, this world will be better.” Then he added, in the same tone McKay had used with him, “You know why, Sergeant McKay.”
Marlowe had been scribbling busily all the while. He handed two sealed notes to Sully and Cloud Dancing. “Somebody gets unpleasant, show ’em this. Ain’t sayin’ it’s the Gospel, but it could save you some trouble.”
“You endorse this madness, Colonel?” said the sergeant bitterly.
“There ain’t no more rules, McKay,” answered Marlowe. “I’m playin’ by ear. If I’m wrong, I’ll take full responsibility.”
“Yeah,” was McKay’s eloquent comment. He saluted. “See you tomorrow, sir.” He went out in a huff.
Marlowe watched Sully and Cloud Dancing file out after him. He leaned back on his chair and looked at the ceiling, worried. It would have been easier just saying no to Bannon - and leave the care of the souls to God.
Matthew was taking a survey of the meadow behind his house. He was planning to build a new corral for his cattle. He had so many things to do and to think about. Dr. Mike had been suggesting he went to law school for quite some time now, but he was afraid he was too old. And he did not want to leave Colorado Springs.
He was measuring the space between two trees with a long string. He looked up and saw McKay approaching after leaving his horse along the old Indian trail.
“They told me I’d find you here,” said the sergeant, by way of greeting.
Matthew looked at him from under the brim of his hat, coiling up the string.
“May I stop a moment?” asked McKay.
The young man shrugged. “Ain’t private property, if you stay beyond that log.”
McKay looked down at the large fallen trunk and nodded. “Matthew, I ain’t gonna waste our time in pleasantries. Nobody said the words ‘I’m sorry’ yet. I’ll be the first. I’m sorry ’bout the way it turned out, I’m sorry your family suffered so much also because of me. If I could go back, I’d try to do things differently.” He waited. Matthew was busy wrapping up the loose end of the string around the coils. “That’s all,” McKay concluded, and turned to go.
Matthew frowned. “Wait,” he said, despite himself. The sergeant stopped and looked at him. “Why you tellin’ me this right now?” the young man asked.
“I’m goin’ away for a mission tomorrow,” McKay explained. “I may be gone a long time. Didn’t wanna leave things unsaid.”
Matthew slung his string on his shoulder. “That’s where Sully’s goin’ too, ain’t it? You goin’ together.”
“Yeah.”
“Is it that dangerous?”
“I hope not. Not for Sully, anyway. He’ll just have a diplomatic role. I trust him to stay outta the melee this time. He gave me his word.”
Matthew looked at the ground, wondering about this new-found bond of trust between Sully and his old enemy. “Yeah, that’s what he told us too. Dr. Mike’s worried all the same, though.”
“Keep an eye on ’em, Matthew,” McKay added. “Though I need not tell you. You know how to take care of people, you were a fine sheriff. That’s another thing I’m sorry for.”
“Are you, now?” Matthew asked coldly, remembering the heart-rending conflict he had lived two years before, when he had been forced to resign. He had no intention of letting the sergeant’s kind words draw him into feeling sympathy for him.
“Yes,” McKay answered. “I did understand what that tin star meant for you, what kind of a sacrifice it was.”
“Sure,” said Matthew, looking about. He had to start measuring another strip of land. He had no time for McKay’s paternalistic attitude.
“It meant you had found your place,” went on the sergeant. “You were what you wanted to be. You finally could do the right thing for you an’ the others.” Matthew raised his eyes on him, astonished, as those words struck him more than he had expected. “It had been all so complicated, but at last you knew your path, an’ you felt it was good. That’s what I contributed to take away from you.”
The sergeant was just standing there, arms at his side, head tilted as if offering his good-will without asking for anything. The sneaking doubt that haunted Matthew became stronger. “How do you know this?” he asked in a low voice.
A vague half-smile smile appeared on McKay’s face. “I’ve been there.”
Matthew felt a rush of angry fear. His hatred for the Army had become a part of him. Feeling it slip away from him now seemed a betrayal, a rejection of all he had ever done for Sully and his family. He tightened his jaws, gripping the coil of string. “All right,” he said heatedly, “if we’re here to tie up loose ends, well, I’m sorry too about the way it turned out! I never really hated you. I hated what you were doin’, your role, that uniform of yours. I always thought you were a damn wasted chance!”
“A wasted chance?” shot back McKay, incredulous. “Don’t start talkin’ like my father!”
They looked at each other. Matthew almost laughed. The dialogue had indeed veered on the absurd. He couldn’t help smiling ruefully, and threw down his coil of string, sitting down on the fallen log. “You coulda done so much more,” he said with earnest sadness. “Even when I reason about it, even when I manage to get over the rage I felt, to understand that Sully and Dr. Mike have forgiven you, why, I can’t help gettin’ mad at the way you just stood there an’ did nothin’.”
“That ain’t true,” countered McKay tiredly.
“Yeah, you went to Denver, an’ what did you obtain? Nothin’!”
The sergeant crossed his arms. “Don’t start me on this once again, Matthew. I told you I –“
“Yeah, sure, you did all you could. How come Sergeant O’Connor did what he bloody well liked at the reservation, an’ you were always hangin’ on to regulations?”
McKay stared at him. He took off his hat and looked at the branches overhead, the portrait of a disheartened man. Then he collected himself, took a deep breath and sat down beside Matthew. “What I’d like you to understand is that I had absolutely no weight in the Army then, any more than I have now. O’Connor seemed to get his way because he broke all rules, but in the end he obtained nothin’ more than bein’ smashed at the foot of a cliff. He counted for nothin’. I count for nothin’.”
Matthew nodded, beginning to experience a new feeling towards McKay. “Is this what they pay you for, to count for nothin’?”
The sergeant looked at him and shook his head, clearly searching for an answer. Matthew went on, “You ain’t a bastard like O’Connor, Morrison an’ the rest. You got good intentions. That’s why I don’t hate you. But is it enough? Now they’re sendin’ you against the Indians once more. What’ll you do? Will you do what they ask you to, or what you feel is right? Your uniform, Sgt. McKay, is a contradiction.”
“Maybe,” said McKay dourly, “but it’s my job.”
Suddenly Matthew was able to place precisely his strange new feeling. It was pity.
He got up from the log, picking up his string. “Sergeant, I gotta thank you for comin’ here today to talk to me.” He lifted his shoulders, regretfully. “You – you understand things can’t get back to normal just like this, with a snap of the fingers.”
“You listened,” said McKay, getting up in his turn and putting on his hat. “It’s a beginnin’. Goodbye, Matthew.”
He walked to his horse and mounted without turning back, riding away fast to Colorado Springs.
Matthew slapped the string against his boots. “Damn,” he said softly.
Horace took the text of the telegram from Alison’s hands and gave it a look. A smile lit up his features. “Mrs. McKay!”
“Your oath, Horace,” she said patiently.
“Course, ma’am. Our little secret.” He tittered delightedly. “I’ll send it at once.”
“Thank you, Horace.”
As she went out, she bumped into McKay. “Just the man I was thinking of,” she exclaimed.
“Alison, what are you doin’ here?” he asked.
“Curious cat.”
“Didn’t mean to intrude.”
She took his arm. “Come on, you soldier! Who’s intruding? You know there’s nothing on earth I would hide from you. Absolutely nothing.”
They stepped down from Horace’s porch. He untied his horse and they both walked towards Alison’s wagon. “I sent a wire to Susan,” she explained. “Things have been a little cold between us, but I wanted her to know she’s going to be an aunt.” Today, she added silently, while I’m still happy, while you’re still with me. “Did you inform your folks?”
“Not yet.”
“Of course – you’re the one who told them you had found a girlfriend only after you got married,” she teased him, climbing up. “Don’t you think you have to notify them sooner, this time?”
“All right,” he agreed. “I’ll write ‘em before he or she gets married.”
They started out of the town at a canter. “I’m due to the fort early tomorrow,” McKay revealed as they crossed the railroad. “We’re leavin’.”
Alison was prepared to that. “How early?”
“Darn early. Gotta be at the fort by six.”
Her happiness clashed loudly with her apprehension. “You sleeping at home?”
“Yes.”
“Good.” She clicked her tongue at her mare.
They reached home by noon. The kitchen was empty. He brought in the supplies and she began to put them in the cupboards. She took down some fruits from over the sink. “I wonder if it’s a boy or a girl,” she whispered. “What’s on your wish list?”
He looked at her with the plates in his hands, smiling dazedly. “I don’t know,” he said. “As long as it’s healthy and bright, I’ll take anything. How about you?”
Alison thought about it. “I believe I hope it’s a boy.” So that if his father never comes back I’ll have a man in the house. She tried to dispel that thought.
“We’ll have to think about his godparents,” McKay said, taking out the glasses.
“Oh, come on, we still have six months before us,” she said cheerfully.
Everything she said sounded off-key to her own ears. She had just declared she could hid nothing from him, and yet right now she was concealing her fear at seeing him go away, making small talk to avoid the silence. She tried to tell herself there was nothing to conceal. She wasn’t really afraid, there was no reason to. She noticed one of the small flour sacks was torn. Annoyed, she placed it into a bowl, lifting a thin cloud of white dust.
“All right, let’s go,” said McKay suddenly.
“Where?” asked Alison, surprised.
“Out.” He took a basket and quickly filled it with some towels, a nice chunk of freshly-baked bread, the meat loaf leftovers, a slice of cake and some apples. Under her astonished eyes he grabbed a couple of metal cups and wooden plates, put everything in and rushed her out the door. She barely had time to get hold of her pink shawl.
The afternoon was warm, scented with the May blooms. The sun came down through the leaves of the tree, scattering patches of light over the green grass. A welcome breeze rustled the branches, mixing with the sound of the small stream that ran nearby. They were just some fifty or sixty yards behind the house – if Alison stretched her neck she could see its back wall through the trees – and yet it seemed they were in the depths of the woods. McKay had discarded his jacket and belt, which now rested along with Alison’s shawl near the drying plates. He lay with his head in her lap, looking up at the flurry of leaves. Her back to the tree, she gazed down on his face, running her fingers through his hair and along his features. He was having a small struggle with her other hand, which toyed with his shirt buttons and the ends of his neckerchief, like a naughty kitten.
“Always been the best part of it all,” he drawled. When he was drowsy but didn’t feel like giving in to sleep he tended to get philosophical. “Travellin’ through the plains, every night a diff’rent place – but if you just stopped to look, an’ didn’t think ’bout what you were s’posed to do there, you went ‘oooh’. Such beautiful places. The splendour of the scenery an’ the pure loveliness of the small things around you. It feels like that when I think back on it. Flashes of beauty.”
Alison nodded, smiling. “I know exactly what you mean. It’s been that way for me too, lately.” She looked down and placed a finger at the centre of his hairline. She traced his profile, down from his forehead and along his nose, touching the small dint above his upper lip, then restraining from lingering on his mouth, or their mood would have swerved perilously. She slid down his chin and his throat, finally finding rest in the hollow between his collarbones where she could feel his warm peaceful pulse. All the while he had stared at her with his clean bright eyes, taking in that gesture with equal reverence.
“An’ when I first set foot here,” he went on softly, “I thought it was one of the finest places I’d ever seen. I couldn’t imagine that it was also the place where I’d find what I’d been searchin’ for. The place to stop.”
She restored her hand to his face. “Neither did I.”
“I’ll come back with a promotion, Alison. It’ll be better for me as a sergeant major. Our child’ll grow free. We’ll be a true family, we’ll be together.”
Alison smiled at that fantasy. Her fingers stole back to his small tight mouth. She made a movement towards him. Now she did want to kiss him, but she couldn’t bend that far.
“Wait,” he said, sitting up. Their lips joined, and they embraced tightly. It was not the most comfortable position, and she slid back along the tree till she was lying in the soft mossy grass at its base. He settled on top of her, and she tasted easily his mouth as he caressed her face. A root was pressing into the small of her back and she squirmed a little, finding an even more pleasant position.
He looked down at her in the warm shimmering light. “An’ this will be one of the brightest moments of beauty I’ve ever known, Alison,” he whispered. “This afternoon. Right now. Forever.”
She took his fine hand in hers and kissed each knuckle, then the palm. She wanted to kiss all of his body. Sometimes they were still timid like newlyweds. Michaela had told her she could carry on with “wifely duties” for some months more, and she had looked forward to it. They still had so much to discover about each other.
She caressed his shoulders, feeling his slim solidity, the tightly-knit muscles under his coarse blue shirt. She laughed softly and moved downward to the back edge of his breeches, her fingers getting entangled in the suspenders.
He hummed in appreciation, kissing her jawline, her ear. “Shall we go back in?” he breathed suggestively.
She opened her eyes on the quivering net of sunlight, quickly batting her eyelids to shield out the piercing glare.
“Just one moment more,” she whispered, letting the magic stretch out as much as she could.

* * *

Smoke Hidden Hills Stable Trail


The squad was lined up by the light of the torches just inside the fort’s doors. Sully and Cloud Dancing waited on their ponies a little to the side. Whatever painful parting they had endured in their turn, they took care not to show it. The Cheyenne medicine man had discarded any symbol of his tribe and authority, braiding his hair and choosing a simple buckskin tunic and a blanket.
“Travis is down with the scurvy,” reported Corporal Winters gloomily, trying to calm his nervous young horse. He had really gotten up very early to supervise the forming of the squad. “I replaced him with Collins.”
Still on foot, McKay looked up and nodded. “Collins is good too,” he said. “Have ’em ready to start.” Poor Winters, he thought, a late sleeper who had never really adjusted to the harsh demands of army life and still felt a physical discomfort at getting up before the sun. And poor Collins, who the day before had been writing to his fiancée in the East that everything was quiet.
A quarter to six. The sergeant mentally checked that everything was packed on his horse and that he wasn’t leaving anything useful behind. Field glass? Compass? Heavy gloves, in case it snowed? There, he knew he was forgetting something, after all those sermons to his men.
He stepped quickly into the barracks and went to the small trunk that held all his belongings. He could search by touch, no need to light up the lantern. Ruefully he put aside letters from Alison and from home, his dress jacket and a writing necessaire. He finally felt the woolly gloves, and as he pulled them out he felt something else. A small leather pouch hanging by a thong.
It was a token from long before, something so strange he had often believed it had all been just a dream. He knew it was meant to keep him safe, but knew also he had forgotten it rather quickly. Men had teased him once when he had taken off his jacket forgetting he had it on, and another time it had caught on the edge of his table, snapping the strap. He had mended it as best as he could. But it bothered him to wear it while he slept, and he started forgetting to put it on during the day. The small pouch had eventually found its way to the bottom of his trunk for good.
It was all some Indian superstition, anyway.
McKay hesitated for a moment, then slipped it over his head and tucked it inside his jacket. He closed the trunk, grabbed the gloves and came back out, stuffing them into his rolled-up blanket and overcoat.
Winters was checking the line and the wagon with the supplies. Colonel Marlowe had appeared from his office, tying his neckerchief. He gave a quick survey to the squad and nodded. “Good luck, Sergeant,” he said warmly.
“Thank you, sir.” McKay looked at his commanding officer. “ Will you give me your hand?”
The colonel looked regretful. He held out his hand, and McKay took it gratefully.
Winters was standing beside them. “All is ready, sir.”
The sergeant mounted his horse, and the big wooden doors of the fort opened wide. The sun was already up, a flattened bloody disc laced with clouds. He rode to the top of the column, raised his arm and gave the order to start. They went out in single line, hooves thumping slowly in the cold sleepy morning.

* * *

Hidden Hills Elementary San Ramon


Smokehidden Hills Stable

Alison peered out of the window, munching a piece of old strawberry pie and downing apple juice. Actually she’d felt the unquenchable urge to devour a pumpkin pie, but that was the closest she could lay her hands on in the middle of May. She fondly patted her belly. It was a mystery how these symptoms had appeared only after she knew she was pregnant. In fact she had been randomly hungry many times in the past months, but she had not given it a second thought – she worked hard, she burned energies, and sometimes she also spent the night awake, as she recalled with a melancholy smile. She already missed him like a part of herself – she wanted him close to her and her child. As she cleared the plate of the smallest crumbs she saw a rider approaching along her trail.
She jumped at first, then told herself that McKay’s squad had gone away just two days before. It couldn’t be any news from them. The visitor rode fast but not madly so, a wide hat bouncing on her back. For a moment she thought it was Michaela, coming to tell her once again that she must not put on too much weight. But Michaela never pulled her hair up like that –
“Oh my God, it’s Susan,” she said aloud.
She ran out on the porch. It was indeed her sister, riding like in the old days. Her dress was vaguely dignified and her hat was pretty, but she wore a light cowboy overcoat and a pair of good riding boots. Alison felt relieved that life in Denver hadn’t made her lose her country practical sense.
Susan waved, laughing, and halted the horse. She dismounted and threw herself in Alison’s arms. “Oh, Allie, I’m so glad to see you! How do you feel?”
Alison was at a loss for words. “Susan, dear... what on earth brought you here?”
“Your wire, of course! I wanted to take you by surprise. Eddie wanted to come too, but I dissuaded him... I know how you feel about him. So, how’s it going? How lucky you are, Allie. We keep trying, but there’s no news yet. And where’s your husband?”
Alison was feeling guilty, then happy, then low-spirited, then comforted. At last she surrendered to the delight of having her little sister back, and without the least trace of bad feelings between them. “He’s gone on a mission, two days ago,” she admitted. “I don’t know when he will be back.”
“Oh, Allie! Why didn’t you write that? I’d have come yesterday!”
Alison smiled and embraced her again. “I’m glad you’re here now, Sue,” she said.
“I’ll stay here and help you,” Susan declared, pulling down her baggage from the saddle. “I’ll write to Eddie not to wait for me. I’ll take care of you, sis. Where’s Bella? I’ve missed her so much! Can’t wait to see the children –“ She went into the house, dragging her canvas bags.
Alison let out her breath and smiled. She wouldn’t have the time or the strength to be worried, now.

Hidden Hills Golf Course Norco Ca

* * *

The nights were beginning to get really cold. This latest stop among the mountains was one of the most uncomfortable they had encountered. They had slept a little better at Fort Fetterman the night before, but from then on there were no more outposts till their destination.
The troopers were singing “Tenting tonight”, softly around their fire. McKay was sitting with Sully and Cloud Dancing before another fire. A coffee pot was warming on a flat stone beside the flames. The three spent their evenings together, talking about maps and trails, Indian customs and the secrets of the wilderness, and sometimes of those they had left back home. McKay was faintly surprised that Sully had not yet mentioned Alison’s child. Either Dr. Quinn had been really discreet, or Sully tactfully waited for him to bring up the subject. He hadn’t been able to do it. It was a warming thought, a beacon in those merciless nights, but whenever he even thought of telling someone his throat clogged up.
He took the pot with his gloved hands, poured himself a half mug of coffee and brought back his attention to the current topic of conversation. He noticed he’d better listen.
“The Army should realise the price of this war is too high,” Sully was saying bitterly. “Even if they win eventually, what’ll be left of them? That’s what the Dog Soldiers are tryin’ to do. To drag it out to the point when the Army’s exhausted.”
“They ain’t gonna make it,” McKay answered. “If it comes to a battle of wills, the government won’t give in. It’ll become a matter of pride.”
“Indian tribes have all the pride they need,” argued Cloud Dancing.
“But not the means. The price of war, as high as it may be for the Army, will always be higher for ’em. They gotta realise they’re wastin’ their time an’ their lives.”
Winters stepped close. “Got some salt pork an’ puddin’ to spare, want some more?”
They helped themselves. “Thank you,” said Cloud Dancing.
“You’re welcome,” answered the young man. “Say, don’t you feel like goin’ out in the woods tomorrow an’ gettin’ us some fresh meat, by any chance?”
Sully and the medicine man looked at McKay. The sergeant asked Winters, “How’s the state of supplies?”
“Not bad, but men are beginnin’ to complain ’bout cramps.”
“All right,” McKay said nodding at Sully and Cloud Dancing, “you two are allowed to detach from the squad tomorrow an’ see if you can bring us a deer.”
“Thank you, sir, I’ll tell the men,” exclaimed Winters, and went back to his post.
“A good lad,” Sully commented, biting away a chunk of salt pork and washing it down with the coffee.
“An’ a good soldier,” added McKay.
“The best soldier is no soldier at all,' whispered Sully.
“Always the radical, Sully,” said McKay. “This country needs an Army.”
Sully shrugged. They were on the verge of plunging into a discussion not different from those about the railway or the Colorado statehood, and wisely he stopped. “I try to see your point. Maybe the best soldier is somebody who ain’t a murderous madman nor a candid soul hampered by regulations, with respect, McKay.”
McKay shot him a look. “Hey, I may not be the best soldier an’ certainly I ain’t a murderous madman, but I ain’t a candid soul either. An’ as for regulations, they exist, an’ I’ve been taught to follow ’em.”
“You cannot walk two paths at once, Sergeant McKay,” said Cloud Dancing.
“You sound like Colonel Marlowe,” said McKay, irritated. He took a slice of the tough pudding and bit on it without enthusiasm.
“If so, Colonel Marlowe speaks the truth.”
The sergeant swallowed his bite, shaking his head. “I ain’t walkin’ two paths at once. I’m ready to fight for Indian rights an’ you know it, but Dog Soldiers are quite another matter. They kill women an’ children. When you use brute force to prove you’re right, it doesn’t matter if you’re really right: you put yourself in the wrong.”
“It seems this does not apply to the Army.”
“The Army’s entitled to the use of force, wouldn’t be the Army otherwise!” McKay exclaimed. “There are laws to be followed. We didn’t make ’em, but we must enforce ’em. We ain’t bandits. It’s a nasty world, Cloud Dancin’.”
“Sure is,” said Sully, “but who decides when to use force? If it’s you or Marlowe or that kid there, it could even suit me, but all the rest? All the O’Connors of the world?”
“Ain’t up to us to judge the rest,” said McKay, more and more annoyed.
“You don’t believe what you’re sayin’, McKay.”
The sergeant got up. “By acceptin’ this mission I made a choice, Sully,” he stated grimly. “An’ I’m gonna stick to it. Good night.” He strode away to throw himself down on his blanket.
Sully let out a concerned breath. Cloud Dancing was staring at him. He spoke in English, lowly but deliberately avoiding to use Cheyenne.
“I hadn’t heard him talkin’ like that for a long time. I don’t like it, Cloud Dancing. I’ve come to trust him completely, even as a friend, but now...”
“Now he is very frightened,” said the medicine man softly. “Something he once loved has been crumbling down before his eyes. He is trying to hold on to it as long as he can, with any means he can. The longer he resists, the more painful it will be when he is forced to let go.”
“Will he ever, I wonder. You think we’ll be able to trust him when we arrive? Will he behave like he’s always done, or like all the rest of ‘em?”
Cloud Dancing shook his head and did not answer, staring at the flames.

Hidden
* * *

“We must be close to the settlement,” announced McKay.
The woody scenery was becoming more rocky and barren, with low steep hills surmounted by a few trees. It looked like a reprise of more Southern landscapes. They were on high ground now, and they could see again the sunset in all its magnificence. The air was clean and cold, the puff of their breath sharply defined.
The shadows were long and reddening among the rocks. The column had halted. McKay looked around and lowered his eyes on the map. “There’s Eagle Top,” he told Sully, “an’ that one’s the dry torrent bed. It should be here.”
“A li’l more within the hills, if you ask me,” said Sully.
“Don’t like these hills,” McKay answered. “Perfect place for an ambush. There should be sentries around already.” He signalled the column to dismount. “Let’s offer a less easy target, first of all,” he said, himself getting down. “Then Collins, Coverdale, you two circle ’round these rocks here, tell me what’s behind. Be careful.”
The two troopers had barely started away when McKay noticed a soldier coming towards them on horseback, waving his arm. “Sgt. McKay?” he called.
“That's me.”
As McKay recalled his troopers, the man spurred onward. “Glad to see you, sir. I’m Sergeant Hartford. Captain Bannon’s waitin’ for you.” He was a grizzled man with the air of an Indian Wars veteran, judging by the colourful trophies hanging from his neck and his belt. McKay was simply wondering about the piteous end of standard equipment out there in the frontier, even more than in Colorado Springs, when he noticed one of the items was a human scalp bleached by the sun.
He studiously kept all distaste out of his countenance, hoping Sully and Cloud Dancing did the same and feeling bad for them. They all had to work with these people, it was necessary to get along. He lifted his gaze back into the defiant eyes of the sergeant and said, “Very well. Take us there.”
They all mounted and formed a single line to pass through the rocks. McKay noticed that the place was indeed full of armed, grey- or brown-shirted people, almost blending with the rocks, who looked nothing like soldiers but had to be an integral part of Captain Bannon’s troop. McKay had to admire the way they had kept themselves hidden. Then he suppressed a shiver, thinking he could very well have ambushed them, if Collins and Coverdale’s detour had been successful. Just what they needed, to shoot one another before the mission had even begun.
“Sorry for the armed welcome,” said Hartford. “We weren’t waitin’ just for you. Two Stream’s been restless these days. Usually comes from the North, but you never know with these Injuns.” He talked as if Cloud Dancing and Sully hadn’t been present.
McKay just nodded. “Is he based on a village?”
“Ah, good question, Sergeant. That’s what we’ve been askin’ ourselves. If we find the damn village he comes from, end of story. But he always manages to confuse his tracks. We followed his braves a lotta times, to no avail. It should be somewhere North of here, but the terrain’s very bad. Practically impossible to attack in force.”
McKay knew Sully and Cloud Dancing were getting every word. Attack in force a village, just like Sand Creek, or Washita. And yet the words of the reports from the settlement danced before his eyes, descriptions of people killed unspeakably, things that forced him to remember that he was alive, that Alison was alive and well and all his family and friends were too, and rejoice for it. Did this justify turning on them in the same way? No, a civilised nation should find another way to settle its differences. Yet, if finding and destroying that village meant saving lives at the settlement...
Before he knew, they had arrived. McKay couldn’t understand whether the poor shacks of some miners and their families had gathered themselves around an old Army outpost, or the opposite had happened. Troopers’ barracks and civilian lodges were amassed upon each other, with a stone wall here and there to give some appearance of solidity and permanence. Smoke rose from the chimneys. No telegraph line was visible. The people looked at the comparatively clean and well-ordered line of fresh cavalrymen without many expectations.
Two men came out of a shack. One was a first lieutenant who seemed to take some pride in his almost pristine uniform, a thin, gloomy fellow who could have been a low-pay clerk in civilian life. The other had to be the famous Captain Bannon, thought McKay halting his line and dismounting. A middle-sized man, shorter than him, only a few years older, with a clean-cut black goatee and light eyes. He wore a captain’s jacket unbuttoned over a flannel white shirt and red plaid waistcoat, and with a straw hat placed on his head seemed unaware of the stinging air. He came forward with his hand extended. “You must be Sgt. McKay. Pleased to meet you. We’ll have some use for your experience.” He sounded a little like Preston.
“Thank you, sir,” answered McKay, saluting, then shaking his hand.
“My lieutenant, Pyle. And I suppose you’ve already got acquainted with our picturesque Sergeant Hartford. Did you brief him, Hartie?”
“’Course I did, sir. Told him we expect him to help us find that bloody village.”
Bannon scanned McKay’s men. “Seems you brought a fine crew.”
McKay braced himself. “Captain, meet my scouts, Byron Sully an’ Cloud Dancin’.”
Bannon pushed back his hat. “Sully and Cloud Dancing? You mean the Sully and Cloud Dancing?”
The sergeant had his little cheerful speech ready. “They’ve been pardoned, sir. Their conduct’s been irreproachable for almost two years, an’ they’ve already worked successfully with the Army. Maybe you remember the Windy Creek affair.” He threw in Cloud Dancing for good measure, although he hadn’t been able to employ the services of the Cheyenne medicine man back then, because of the bigoted Windy Creek miners. Cloud Dancing didn’t contradict.
“Heard something of it,” admitted Bannon. Then he laughed suddenly and patted vigorously the sergeant on the back. “You’ve got some nerve, McKay! Well, I asked for you, so I suppose I must take what I get. I hope you know what you’re doing. Because if these two get into some bad trouble, your career ends here, do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, captain,” answered McKay, seeing the glint of steel beneath the eccentric appearance and beginning to understand why his men would battle a dragon for him.
Bannon rubbed his hands together. “Now I suppose you’re all hungry. The kitchen’s not much here, but I hope you –“
A scream came from the rocks over them. “Alarm! Dog Soldiers! Forty men, coming from the North! Alarm!”
McKay looked up. He couldn’t see the sentinel. “Horses under cover!” he shouted to his men. He noticed quickly that the place was full of natural and man-made fortifications, trenches, piles of rock, wooden stacks, and that Bannon’s men were coming out of nowhere, armed to their teeth, as the civilians disappeared into their huts. He saw a cloud of smoke coming from behind the settlement and heard the first shots. Evidently Bannon had similarly covered the North side.
Bannon already had his pistol in hand and gestured at McKay and Winters to follow him. They dived into a stony trench, not before the sergeant had checked that his men and Sully and Cloud Dancing were taking cover. McKay lost track of Bannon’s NCOs, but he noticed the men guarding the South entrance were coming back at a gallop, sabre in hand. Then all hell broke loose.
The Dog Soldiers swarmed upon the settlement, shooting and screaming. Some aimed at the soldiers, but most just made noise. McKay tried to bring down some of them, but they seemed incredibly fast. He heard Sully shout something, noticed him out of the corner of his eye come forward and wave his hands, and saw a glass lantern explode behind him as Cloud Dancing dragged him back to cover. So much for diplomacy.
As some renegades engaged the mounted soldiers, lance against sabre, a man began crossing repeatedly McKay’s field of vision. At times he came so close that they could clearly see his face, then danced away so fast they never had time to take aim. He seemed charmed. He wore a red slash diagonally painted across his face, and his long black hair seemed to stand out from his head. He had to be the famed Two Streams.
“Traitors,” he screamed clearly in English, waving his rifle high. “Traitors all.”
McKay felt another ominous shiver. Black Moon had been an expert and charismatic warrior, but this one was little more than a boy. With the recklessness of boys. He could lead his people to destruction, and drag along with him the lives of countless soldiers.
“Leave this place, or I will kill you all,” shouted again the young chief. “There will be no mercy... no mercy for anyone!”
He took something from between his leg and the side of his horse, something that looked like a rag, and threw it into the trench. Then he turned and spurred away, with another war scream. His braves followed him, delivering some last volleys into Bannon’s ranks.
“After them!” shouted Lieutenant Pyle. He took the lead of the mounted group and together they started their Northward pursuit.
“All useless,” said Bannon bitterly. He looked down at what Two Streams had thrown at him. It was a corporal’s jacket, bloody and torn. The captain picked it up with regret. At McKay’s side, Winters flinched, visibly confronted with his own mortality.
“The North sentries?” asked McKay.
Bannon nodded. “Thank God you’re here, I’m losing too many men,” he said. He got out wearily of the trench and met with Sully and Cloud Dancing.
“You all right?” McKay asked them, receiving a bleak nod.
The captain looked at them. “Well, Mr. Sully and Cloud Dancing, we’ve had a full display of your usefulness. For my part, if your sergeant sends you back to Colorado Springs, I won’t raise objections. And now, gentlemen, I believe our dinner is postponed.”
On the ground remained a trooper and two renegades. “It was just a demonstrative action,” said Sully in a low voice. “I don’t think Two Streams got enough men to wipe out this settlement. Unless, of course, he receives reinforcements.”
“From the famous village?” said McKay.
“Yeah. Whatcha gonna do about it?”
“Come with me, Sgt. McKay,” called Bannon. “Help me recover my sentries’ bodies. You’ll learn something more about our enemy.” He walked away, his step heavy. That man was no Major Morrison, that much was certain.
McKay looked into Sully’s eyes. “I don’t know,” he answered. He turned and followed Bannon, while Sully and Cloud Dancing watched him with worry in their eyes.

* * *
StableSmokehidden Hills Stable

The first rays of the sun shone through the cracked wood of the shack where Sully and Cloud Dancing had spent the night, lying on the floor wrapped up in their blankets, their heads pillowed on their bags, along with some soldiers of McKay’s squad. Sully had been awake for some time. He heard a step outside and sat up. McKay pushed open the door and entered.
“Gotta talk to you both,” he whispered. Cloud Dancing had turned towards him, alert at once.
They went out in the still chilly morning, taking the blankets with them. McKay wore gloves and his overcoat on his shoulders. “You heard Bannon yesterday. Best thing for you’s goin’ back.”
“So soon?” asked Sully, his breath condensing in the cold air. “Yesterday’s been a false start, McKay. If we manage to talk to Two Streams face to face, I’m sure we can - ”
“I don’t think so. This situation’s complicated, an’ I don’t wanna see you two get into trouble.”
“An’ yourself,” added Sully.
“This thought has crossed my mind, yes,” admitted the sergeant.
“This means you do not trust us, Sergeant McKay,” said Cloud Dancing matter-of-factly.
McKay tightened his lips. “Wish it was as easy as that,” he answered. “I’m sure you wouldn’t willingly do anythin’ stupid. Let’s say I don’t think you can be of help here, an’ your presence is a source of worry to me. I hoped the situation was better. As it is, I prefer to have you outta my sight.”
“You makin’ a mistake, McKay,” said Sully in a low voice.
“By choosin’ to come here you put yourself under my orders as scouts,” McKay said flatly. “Now I’m sendin’ you back. Arguin’s not an option.”
Sully stared at him as if he wanted to see all the way through the sergeant’s mind. McKay’s eyes were hard, touched by sadness. Sully felt – no, he knew that McKay would never order or take part in a raid against a harmless village. But he also knew how much he felt bound by regulations. “Not willingly do anything stupid” applied to him also. If they found the village and McKay was ordered to go against it, he’d just say no, like he’d done with Morrison. He’d find himself court-martialled, Bannon would destroy the village anyway and it would have been all useless.
“For the last time, McKay,” pleaded Sully, “we gotta work together. There’s still so much we can do, but only if we help each other.”
The sergeant looked at him in silence for a moment, then shook his head. “It’s too dangerous for everyone, Sully. I shouldnta brought you here in the first place. You have five minutes to pick up your things an’ go. Otherwise I’ll have you confined.”
Sully looked at the thoughtful Cloud Dancing. He gave a good look at McKay, defiantly lifting his face, unbelieving at the sergeant’s stubborness. Then he turned and went back in to recover his bag.
They rode slowly out of the rocks, in silence, away from all eyes, down to the zone where the trees started again.
“What are you thinking?” asked Cloud Dancing at last.
Sully shook his head. “I don’t understand why he did that.”
“He is in a bad position,” said the Cheyenne, quietly. “He is trying to save all he can, as usual. He believes this is best for everybody.”
“He can’t please everybody.”
“Enough of Sergeant McKay,” Cloud Dancing sighed. “He has decided to be on his own, and we must respect his choice. What are we going to do?”
“You thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’?”
The medicine man gave him a thin smile. “Somewhere up there in the mountains there is Two Streams’ base. If we find it before the soldiers do, we can convince him to come to terms with the Army.”
“Strange hearin’ you talk like that, Cloud Dancin’.”
He looked melancholy. “I do not want to see another Washita, Sully.”
His brother nodded. “They say the village’s up North. If we take a wide enough detour we can try to reach it.”
“Let us go at once, then.”
They started away, ready to ride all day if necessary, hoping to avoid Bannon's scouts. Colonel Marlowe's papers lay unopened in their pockets.

* * *

Stable

McKay checked once again his watch, worried and angry beyond measure. Thoughts of terrifying disciplinary actions crossed recklessly his mind. The sun was setting beyond the rocks, the men were preparing for Bannon’s rite of supper, and still there was no trace of Corporal Winters.
Everybody was going out of his mind, thought the sergeant. He had given the young man a regular permit to go out on what he thought was the safe side, after checking first with Bannon who had had no objections. Winters was very nervous, after seeing what was left of his equivalent on the bleak rocks of Eagle Top; he was continuously on the verge of picking a fight with someyone - his usual damn defect, coupled with the other, that of not being able to keep his pants on. There were no damsels in distress around, only the miners’ dour-faced wives, and clearly this reflected on Winters’ temper. But to be fair, the atmosphere of the settlement was indeed getting on everybody’s nerves, what with the civilians’ depressed restlessness and the soldiers’ boisterous attitude. McKay had given Winters half an hour to cool down. After two hours the corporal wasn’t back yet.
McKay was about to ask for permission to go and look for him, when he heard the thump of hooves, and turning towards the Southern post he saw Winters come in on his horse, stop and dismount as if everything had been all right. He approached McKay, hat in hand. “Sorry, sir,” he said aloud.
“Sorry, sir?! Winters, you’re about to be disciplined. You’re –“
“Gotta talk to you,” added the corporal in a whisper.
“What?”
“Now.”
McKay stared at him. He noticed that his horse was sweaty, despite the apparent calm with which they had come in. “Better be a good explanation,” he said coldly. “Come with me.”
He drew him away from the barracks, towards the stables. Winters led his still foaming horse and once inside put a bucket of water in front of it and started taking off the saddle.
“So?” asked McKay, little disposed to mercy.
“I met a band of renegades, sir,” whispered Winters.
“What! Where?”
“South of here, not far. I had barely entered the woods an’ was about to turn back.”
“Gotta warn the captain –“
“No, sir, they weren’t armed for attack. They had no firearms, they were huntin’. Which means –“
They looked at each other. “Which means their base could be South of here, not North where everybody’s lookin’ for it, an’ not too far away either,” whispered McKay.
Winters nodded. He put a nosebag of oats on his horse and started brushing its sweaty flanks.
“Did they see you?” asked the sergeant.
“No. I kept outta sight. Tried to follow ’em, but when they got into open ground I thought it was too risky an’ turned back.”
McKay nodded, all anger replaced by a chilly apprehension. “Can you show me on a map where they were headed?”
“Guess so,” answered Winters. “Sir – you gonna report to Bannon?”
The sergeant was trying to think very quickly, but no amount of reflection could change his answer. “Not yet,” he said.
And quite a large village too, thought McKay, dispirited.
He was lying in the shrubs upon a small height, looking down at the cluster of tepees, among which the first fires began to burn low, dry branches, little smoke hidden by the shadows of evening. Two Streams had been more cunning than his youth could suggest. His attacks to the settlement were so spaced in time, not because he came from far away, but because he didn’t want to reveal that he came from very close.
The village was nestled in the elbow of a river. It had to be just an affluent, but from that height and in the fading light it looked and sounded like a wide watercourse. McKay saw women sitting on the ground, sewing buckskins. Children learning to use their father’s bow. Warriors in circle, talking. All in all, a hundred people.
There had to be something seriously wrong in him, McKay thought. He didn’t feel the slightest instinct to retaliate on them for the atrocities he had witnessed at the settlement and during his whole career in the Indian Wars. He knew that there wasn’t a single soldier in Bannon’s troop and in his own squad – with the possible exception of Winters – who would stop to think before slaying everybody in the village, regardless of women and children.
It was so simple. There were civilians to protect at the settlement too. If they wiped away the village, those people would be safe. Their safety was his responsibility. Lying in the grass in the fading light, his thoughts in a jumble, he leaned his face on his arms, dejectedly.
There had to be another solution, he thought with a stab of rebellion. Two Stream’s ruse had succeeded – so far. It had been Winters this time, but next time it could be one of Bannon’s men to run across the hunters or even the village. But till now, they had no idea about where the village was, and if Two Streams stopped his raids, the soldiers would eventually leave that uncomfortable and bleak fort.
Why had he sent Sully and Cloud Dancing away? How useful they would be, now.
McKay felt caught in a whirl of mistakes. Mistakes made trying to be cautious, to reconcile everything. His mind was still boggled in trying to choose what was right and what was not. His instinct was loudly urging him to act at once.
There was a way to break out of that spiral of doubt. He crept back on his elbows, until he was out of sight from below, and got up. He looked around, perfectly still. There wasn’t a sound. His horse stood quietly in a thicket.
Well, he didn’t have Sully and Cloud Dancing, he must do with what he had. Quite literally. There wasn’t a shred of white cloth in his equipment, aside from his shirt. He quickly took off jacket and shirt, shivering with cold, then put the jacket back on. He had left his greatcoat at the camp. No matter now.
He put his holster and gun into the saddlebag, so that it wouldn’t be menacingly visible. He cut a long straight branch from the thicket and tied his shirt on it. With his makeshift peace flag, he untied the horse, mounted in the saddle and started off to descend from the hill, towards the village.
He had been riding slowly through the darkening wood for some twenty minutes. From Winters’ directions, he knew he was headed the right way. The horse’s plunging hoofs sounded as if they could be heard for miles, and so did his heart. He heard the river, distant in the darkness, a steady, rushing sound.
Suddenly something was upon him from above, and he was dragged down from the horse by a savage weight. He hit the ground hard. Dark shadows emerged from the trees. He let go of his flag and tried to defend himself, but another one was already grabbing his arm. He couldn’t even have reached for his gun, had he had it on him. Now four or five Dog Soldiers were holding him down.
“I come in peace,” he said earnestly. “I want to talk. Please, listen to me. I know you speak my language. I –“
He recognised the renegades’ chief in the dusk from the wild-looking hair. “Two Streams, listen to me!” he called desperately. “Please, I know you understand me, you must listen, you’ll all be killed if you don’t...”
Two Streams drew out a shining knife. Fear choked McKay’s words. He tried to struggle, but they were holding him fast. He thought of Alison and her child. The warrior grabbed the collar of his jacket and tore it open.
If he goes for the heart it’ll be quick, McKay thought mindlessly. Two Streams placed a hand on his chest and hesitated. He lifted the sketchily mended medicine pouch.
McKay watched with growing horror. Now they would think he had stolen it from an Indian, and retaliate in even more inhuman ways. The young chief looked at him, then at the pouch again. He let it fall on his chest and got up. A nod, and the Indians let go of McKay. Then they turned and started away.
Incredulous, McKay dragged himself on his knees. “Do you believe me now?” he called out after them. “Please, listen to me...”
They disappeared in the dark without a trace.
He collapsed sitting on the ground. After the brutal rush of panic, tension abandoned him with equal violence. He was able to keep control of essential muscles - but his teeth started chattering, his breath came in hissing gasps, and his hands were shaking so badly he couldn’t even try to tuck the medicine pouch back inside his torn jacket. He hugged his knees and laid his face on them, his mind a blank, until the shock eased away.
Something moved behind him and he jumped. It was his horse. He held out a grateful hand to the furry searching muzzle. Holding to the reins, he managed to set himself upright. Then he recovered his shirt, untying it from the branch and folding it methodically, before putting it into his saddlebag.
When McKay returned to the camp it was dark and the men were still eating. He got quickly into the barracks, holding his jacket closed, sore and bruised from the struggle. “Fetch me Corporal Winters,” he said to the nearest private.
He had changed into a clean shirt and put his face into the washbasin, when Winters appeared on the threshold. “Sir?”
McKay turned, drying his face. “Get yourself to Fort Lafayette as fast as you can, take this to Colonel Marlowe.” He handed him an envelope. “Somebody must stop this madness. We’re riskin’ a catastrophe, no different than Washita or Sand Creek. He must wire Washington an’ come here at once.”
The corporal nodded at once, making McKay feel proud. “What will Bannon say ‘bout me leavin’ so suddenly?”
McKay shot him a wry look. “Medical reasons. You had a breakdown, anybody can see that. You’re a loose cannon. Battle fatigue, whatever, they’ll believe me hands down.”
Winters smiled briefly. Then he looked more closely at the sergeant’s face in the light of the single lantern hanging from the ceiling. McKay’s eyes were haunted and forlorn, and he seemed pale as death. “I’d be more careful ‘bout who you diagnose battle fatigue to,” Winters said softly.
McKay shrugged. “I’m just bloody scared. Tell you later. Take two men, don’t go near these woods, see that you avoid Custer. Be off, now.”
The corporal still hesitated. “Sergeant,” he said, “I’d rather stay.”
McKay shook his head. “I want you outta this, Duane.”
Winters was moved by the out-of-ordinance use of his first name. “Then I’ll go, sir,” he said, “but first, will you give me your hand?”
The sergeant said nothing. He took the hand Winters offered him, then drew the young man in an hug, patting his back.
“Now go,” he said finally, releasing Winters.
The corporal saluted stiffly and went out of the barrack, and McKay was alone.

End of Part 1 of 2