Drifter by D (part 2)

Chapter XXVI

It took them a while to be ready to leave the following morning. They had both homes to pack up; Koko figured they would store one at her home and the other would return to the People when they turned their footsteps in that direction. But for now, they were responsible for both of them and it took a while to disassemble them and load them onto Dapples back. The remainder of their supplies was loaded onto Black’s back, and soon they were walking side by side towards Koko’s home in the white man’s world.

“How long will it take, warrior? How long before we arrive at your home?”

“Well, I have never walked the distance before, ka’eskone, but I believe it will take four of five days if we move at a steady pace. And from there it is half a day’s ride by horseback into town if and when you feel comfortable enough to venture there.”

Donoma clasped the hand that swung free closest to her own. “I am looking forward to seeing your home, Koko Kanti. I am not as certain about the town, but I am willing to give it a try as long as you are standing right beside me.”

“It is the only place I want to be, ka’eskone.” Silence ruled for a long time after that.

The next three days were spent traveling slowly across the Plains, sharing conversation and silences in equally comfortable measure. Bit by bit they were relearning each other and every day they found reasons to fall a little more in love with each other.

They were making good time but on the morning of the fourth day, Koko frowned and stopped walking, wondering if her eyes were deceiving her. There was no reason for Stephen Murphy to be out this far, but it certainly looked like his mare picketed in the grass. Donoma slipped her hand into Koko’s and Koko smiled down at her.

“What is it, warrior?”

“I am not certain, ka’eskone. The horse ahead is familiar – it appears to be the mare that belongs to the town Marshall, but there is no reason for him to be out this far unless he is chasing an outlaw or looking for someone.”

“Well, let us go and find out, Koko. We will not learn anything by standing here.”

Koko wrapped an arm around Donoma’s shoulders and laughed out loud. “You are a very wise woman, Donoma Chepi. It should not take long and then we can head to the homestead. We are only a half day’s ride away, so we should be there by dusk if we continue walking at the pace we have been.”

“I told you, warrior… as long as we are together it does not matter where we are. Now let us go determine if this is your law friend. I would like to meet him.”

************

Stephen Murphy blinked his eyes open slowly, noting the sun was completely above the horizon although it was still early. He hadn’t expected to sleep so deeply or so long out in the rough. He knew better. He sighed and scrubbed his hands over his face, scratching his neck and stretching. He stirred up the coals of his fire and threw in a couple chips to catch. Then his horse whinnied and he looked up to find two figures leading two horses heading his way. Murphy squinted, trying to make out the identity of the humans.

If he didn’t know any better, he’d have sworn the one leading the big black was Reb Stone… except he knew Stone traveled alone and she never walked when she could ride Black. Yet the longer he stared, the more sure he became until they were actually close enough for him to know. Murphy stood to his feet and watched them approach, wondering who the blonde woman was that Stone was obviously so possessive of. Then they stopped in front of him and he extended his hand to Koko.

“Damn good to see you, Stone!” Then he blushed and looked at Donoma as he removed his hat. “Beg pardon, ma’am. I didn’t mean to offend. It’s just I have been hunting for Reb here and I’m really glad she found me. Name’s Murphy… Marshall Stephen Murphy.”

Koko’s eyebrow rose. She’d never know the lawman to be so effusive in his speech. “Murph, this is my Nutta, my mate… Donoma Chepi.”

“Wha… who… your wife? Can you *do* that? I mean….” motioning between them. “You’re both women.” A beat. “No offense meant, ma’am,” to Donoma when he saw the fire burning in her eyes. “That’s just not the way things are done around here.”

“Happy not to be from here then,” Donoma answered in angry, stilted English. Thanks to Rachel’s tutoring, she understood everything that was being said – with a little practice, she would be speaking as fluently as she read and understood. But for now, she was still new enough for it to sound unnatural, though there was no mistaking the anger in her voice or expression.

“I’m sorry, ma’am. If Reb has chosen you to be her mate, then you must be pretty special.” He held out his hand to her and Donoma looked at it and then turned to Koko before accepting it, finding her hand swallowed by his much larger one. “It’s very nice to meet you, Mrs. Stone. Just be careful – there’s a lot that won’t be so accepting.”

“Not need acceptance… have Koko Kanti,” Donoma replied, tucking herself into Koko’s embrace. Koko held her tightly for a long moment, then kissed the top of her head.

“So why were you looking for me, Stephen?”

Koko’s question brought his attention back from the contemplation he had fallen into regarding the relationship and obvious love and commitment between the two women in front of him. He gestured them to a spot around the fire. He took a seat opposite them and cleared his throat.

“I’m sorry I can’t offer you a bit of hospitality. This was only an overnight trip and I left the coffeepot at the jail.” He sighed and turned to Koko. “Reb, the army is grumbling. Not all of them, but the Washburn brothers are throwing around some accusations… actually Reuben Washburn is the one running off at the mouth. Swears it’s your fault his brother Leroy is dead.”

Koko sat up a little straighter, though she did not release her hold on Donoma, and focused her intensity on Murphy. “Excuse me? Whaddya mean, Leroy is dead?? And why am I being blamed? I haven’t been anywhere near the fort or the soldiers there in almost a month.”

“Where were you, Reb?”

Koko glared at Murphy for a long moment. “Do you think I killed Leroy, Stephen?”

“No,” he replied without hesitation. “I think they are trying to hide some wrongdoing on their part, though I don’t know for sure what it is yet. I’ve got some ideas; I just need to do some investigating. I was asking because I was concerned. I was coming out here looking for ya when I heard about the accusations.”

“Then why was it only an overnight trip?”

“‘Cause after I heard what Spence had to say, I figured I better see what the hell was going on. I went out to your place to see if you were there, hoping I could kill two birds with one stone as it were. I decided to come out here a piece thinking maybe I could pick up your trail.”

Koko snickered. “Did you find anything?”

Murphy almost growled and he did glare. “You know I didn’t, but I had to try. Damn good thing I did too. I woulda missed ya if I’d headed back to town and then… well, I’m pretty sure things woulda gotten pretty ugly before I could let ya know what was going on.”

“So what is going on, Murph? I still don’t understand.”

So the Marshall told her everything the colonel had shared with her, wondering at the narrowing of the blue eyes. When he was done with his recitation, he waited for her reaction. It wasn’t long in coming but it was not what he expected. She looked at Donoma and spoke to her in their native tongue.

“I think I know now what happened to you, ka’eskone.” Then she looked at Murphy, fire burning in her eyes, though her expression remained stoic. “This is personal, Stephen. I’ll take care of this.”

“I can’t let ya do that, Reb. This is a matter for the law… and the army. Your involvement will only complicate things.”

“Then consider them complicated, Murph, because those sons of bitches nearly killed Donoma!”

“Wait… what? How do you know? Are you sure?”

And finally Koko answered his original question – telling him where she had been for the past month… starting with her leaving town to follow Hobbs and ending with their coming upon him earlier. Donoma sat quietly listening to the telling, understanding for the first time just what Koko had gone through before she had arrived at the winter encampment.

“Okay now… wait just a dadburn minute,” Murphy said, holding up his hands for quiet. “You mean to tell me that you think Washburn shot your wife? Why? How could he possibly know she was your wife?”

Donoma shook her head slowly, garnering the attention of both Koko and Murphy. Koko caught her eyes and gently cupped her chin. “What is it, ka’eskone?”

“Not know… wanted Black.”

“Donoma?”

“Mrs. Stone?”

Donoma held Koko’s eyes for another minute before clasping her hand and turning to look at Murphy. “Fell when shot, but heard.”

“Heard what, beloved?”

Donoma closed her eyes and concentrated. “‘Take horses. Waited long time to own stallion.’ Black moved away… was loud screaming from men.” She turned back to Koko. “I do not remember anything else, warrior mine. Everything went dark for me then.”

Murphy looked at Koko for the translation, nodding when she repeated Donoma’s words in English. “Well, that certainly puts a different spin on things.” He looked at Donoma. “Do you remember anything else?”

“No – memory not clear of that day.”

“Murph, this is the first significant thing she’s remembered since she woke up. She may continue to recall bits of things or she may not. Don’t pressure her.”

“That wasn’t my intention, Reb. But the more she remembers the stronger a case I can present to Spence. You know he’s gonna want more than that… especially from someone he don’t even know. I’m gonna have to do some investigating… see what I can find out and what I can prove.”

“I told you I’m gonna take care of it, Murph.”

“Reb, I can’t let ya do that… not with all the accusations that are flying around the fort. Most everybody knows it’s nothin’ but a lot of hot air by some disgruntled soldiers who resent the hell outta you. But that also means we need to do things by the book. We can’t just make wild accusations against them without proof.” He sighed when Koko glared at him. “Reb, you have more to be concerned with now than just revenge. You have responsibilities.”

“I won’t be left out of the loop on this one, Murph. I know I have Donoma to take care of, but you can’t just ask me to step aside while someone besmirches my name and reputation.”

“I know, Reb. I wouldn’t ask you to.”

“Thanks, Stephen. I’ll stay out of your way… at least for now.” She paused and looked at Donoma. “Actually, that won’t be hard for a while – Donoma and I will be staying at my… our home here until she’s ready to venture into the town. So someone, preferably you, will need to come out to the homestead if there is any news.”

Murphy arched an eyebrow. “That easy?”

Koko met his gaze then turned to Donoma and held her eyes. “That easy. As long as you’re willing to keep me in the loop, I’m happy to stay out of it – for now.”

“Understood, Reb. Mrs. Stone?” he asked, extending his hand and clasping hers gently when Donoma turned her attention to him. “I just wanted to offer you my congratulations. I’ll look forward to greeting you again when you’re ready to come into town.”

The Marshall stood from his place by the fire and Koko rose as well. She held her hand out and he accepted it, gripping it firmly. “Take care, Reb. I’ll be out again soon.”

“We’ll look forward to it, Murph. We’ll even treat you to some of Donoma’s cooking. You’ll love it.”

“Judging from the pounds she has managed to make stick to your lanky frame, I’d have to agree with you,” Murphy said with a chortle. “I’ll look forward to it.”

He scattered the fire even as Donoma and Koko headed back towards their horses. With a wave, they headed towards the homestead and a moment later, he was taking the most direct path back towards the town. He had work to do.

************

“He was nice,” Donoma said when they were some distance from Murphy’s campsite. “I am glad to have met him.”

“Even with the rocky start, ka’eskone? I think he expected his hair to catch on fire your glare was so fierce.”

“Even with. He was kind after he realized the truth of who we are. But why did he call me Mrs. Stone? My name is Donoma Chepi.”

Koko sighed. She’d wondered if she would be able to escape this particular question. “Yes it is, ka’eskone. But remember, in the white man’s world I am known as Reb Stone. I took my mother’s family name to help me fit in here. And in the white man’s world, a man’s wife is referred to by his last name with a Mrs. in front of it to show that she belongs to him.”

“Although I most certainly belong to you, warrior, you are in no way a man nor could you ever be mistaken for one. I am not sure I understand why he would do that.”

“From Stephen it is a sign of respect. In the white man’s world, men, especially unmarried ones, refer to a married… joined woman by the title of Mrs. and to an unmarried one by Miss. I do not understand all the whys and reasons they do so, but it seems to be some sort of rule or code that they follow. I can tell them to call you by Donoma, ka’eskone.”

Donoma stayed silent for a while pondering that and Koko let her be. She more than most understood the changes Donoma was in for if and when she chose to enter the white man’s world; there was no need to rush into a decision. Finally….

“What does that make you, Koko?” At Koko Kanti’s puzzled look, Donoma smoothed the furrows from her forehead and smiled, then continued speaking. “If by being mated with you I am now Mrs. Stone, what does that make you? Are you Mrs. Stone as well? I have no family name to offer you.”

Koko literally stopped in her tracks, paused in thought. After a moment, she shrugged and looked into Donoma’s earnest face. “I honestly do not know, ka’eskone. I have never been in this situation before. Everyone in town and the fort already know me as Reb Stone and most of them call me by Stone. They have since I became a bounty hunter. To them I am an anomaly – that is… I am different from anything that exists in their world. They know nothing of Koko Kanti or my heritage. I figured there was no need to introduce more confusion than I had already brought.”

“So how will they look at me?”

“They will see many things, Donoma. Some will see a beautiful young woman. Others will see a stranger or someone not worth their time and attention because of where you come from. Some will look at you as a curiosity because you are different and others will find a friend. That is how it was for me.”

“And us, Koko Kanti? If what your Marshall friend said is true, they will not understand us.”

“They do not have to understand, ka’eskone. We do not owe them anything.”

“But if we decide to stay here….”

“Donoma, if we decide to stay here, we will find some friends among those here. I did. But we do not need to worry about that right now – for now it will just be you and me.”

Donoma smiled, a grin so huge that Koko couldn’t help but return the expression. “I for one am very happy about that particular circumstance.”

“You do not miss your family then?”

“I miss them, yes. They will always be my family. But you are my home, warrior. And as long as I have you, I will always have my family around me. That is enough for me.”

Koko pulled them to a stop and answered Donoma’s words with a passionate embrace. When they were both breathless, she took Donoma’s hand and together they continued on the path towards their homestead.
Chapter XXVII
Stephen Murphy rode into town slowly, nothing in his demeanor giving away the turmoil going through his mind. He rode around to the back of the jail, dismounting and walking the animal into the small enclosure that sheltered her from the sun and bad weather. He hopped off and removed the saddle, currycombing the sweat and dirt from her coat, then setting her up with feed and water. Only after he was done did he head into his office.

He washed his face, trying to remove the grit from his eyes. A knock on the door made him turn around in surprise – most folks didn’t knock before they came into his office; it was the jail after all. Before he could call out, the door opened and Col. John Spencer crossed the threshold.

“Am I interrupting?”

Murphy wiped the water from his face and motioned Spencer in. John closed the door behind him and took a seat in front of the desk, waiting for Stephen to start the fire in the tiny stove and put on the coffee. When he was done, he dropped into the chair behind his desk.

“Goddamn but I’m tired.”

“Rough ride?”

“Rough night’s sleep. I’ve gotten soft staying here… used to a bed and my coffeepot.”

Spencer laughed. “I know the feeling, my friend. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be happy when it comes my time to head back out into the field.”

Murphy’s eyebrow went into his still wet hairline. “You expecting that to happen soon?” He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest.

Spencer shook his head. “Not really – most officers of my rank or higher have wives and families who aren’t that keen to move out into the wilderness. I’d be more likely to retire here, especially if I can ever coax Miss Molly into marrying me.”

Murphy laughed. “She’s still telling you no? You must not be asking right, Spence, ’cause anyone with half an eye can see she’s gone on you.”

“I think the thought of being an Army wife scares her.”

“Well, maybe she can talk to Stone’s new bride. That should make being an Army wife look like a piece of cake.”

“Come again, please? Stone can’t have a bride… she’s a woman.”

The front legs of the Marshall’s chair hit the floor and he folded his hands on the desk. “Then *you* can be the one to explain it to them. I’m not gonna argue with either of them about it.”

“I take it this means you found her… them?”

“Yep, although actually… they found me.” Murphy got up and walked to the stove, pouring himself a cup of coffee and then a second for Spencer at the other man’s affirmative. “They were coming in from the prairie, Spence. Stone didn’t even know Washburn was dead, though I do have some interesting information about that.”

“Oh?” accepting the cup Stephen offered him. “Such as?”

“Whose idea was it for them to go looking for horses? I know you said you sent them, but whose idea was it originally?”

The colonel leaned back in his chair and sipped his coffee. “It came up in a staff meeting,” he reflected. “I think it was Leroy, now that you mention it, but I didn’t have any objection. Like I told you before, we were going to use them for the cavalry.”

“Well it appears that Leroy Washburn might’ve had other motives.”

“What makes you say that, Murph? And better yet, can you prove it?”

And Murphy told him exactly what had transpired from the time he had left, including his entire conversation with Koko and Donoma. When he finished, he sat back and looked at Spencer, watching the emotions flit across his expressive face as the thoughts turned the cogs of his mind.

“And you believe them, Murph? You believe both of them?”

Murphy nodded. “Yeah, Spence… I do. You didn’t see them… hear them. They weren’t lying, John. Whatever happened out there to Leroy Washburn, it had nothing to do with Reb Stone.”

“So, we have a case of ‘he said, she said’,” Spencer said thoughtfully, pinching his lips between his fingers. “Frankly, I’d be inclined to believe Stone’s word, even without the corroboration of this so-called wife. Washburn isn’t the kind of officer I prefer to have in my unit, but I wasn’t given my pick when I got this assignment. And without proof….”

“Well, without proof, you can’t charge Stone with anything anymore than you can Washburn.”

“No, but it also means there’s no real way to put the rumors down either. It might stir up bad feelings among those who already have issues with Stone… especially if she comes riding into town with some Indian woman claiming to be married to her.”

Murphy shook his head. The colonel’s attitude was going to cause problems if he didn’t keep his thoughts to himself. “Spence, let me give you a piece of advice – don’t mock their connection to one another, whatever they choose to call it.”

Spencer snorted. “C’mon Murph… you can’t tell me you agree with that shit.”

Murphy shook his head. “Not my call to make, Spence. But you trust me when I tell you that whatever there is between them, it’s real. I wouldn’t malign it or discount it in front of the two of them. You think Stone could kick your ass – you haven’t seen what Donoma Chepi’s reaction would be. She liked to have burned the hair offa my head with the look she gave me.”

Spencer regarded the Marshall for a long moment. Then he rose from his seat and went to the door. “I’ll give it some serious thought, Murph. And in the meantime, I’ll try to see if I can get any more information about the two deaths from the men who returned with their bodies. But I think it’s going to end up being some sort of wild goose chase.”

“Probably. I’ll do what I can on this end and I’ll keep in touch with Stone. Hopefully we can get to the bottom of this before she and her mate venture into town.”

“With any luck, it’ll be a while before they do. I’m not sure what sort of reception they’ll get.”

And with that Spencer walked out the door of the jail and headed back to the fort.

************

“You are sure about this, Honaw?”

“We witnessed it with our own eyes, Nahko’e. We saw the courtship dance, the mating kiss and their move into Donoma Chepi’s home together. And if that does not qualify as enough, we spoke to them of their commitment to one another. Finally, Donoma has accepted the truth of them in her heart and mind. They are joined.”

Litonya danced for joy for a very long moment, drawing attention to herself and bringing many of the tribe closer to learn her news. Many suspected, since they were all aware of where and why Honaw and Keeheekoni had traveled away from the tribe alone. However, they had all waited a long time to hear this particular bit of gossip and no one wanted to spoil Litonya’s moment.

After a long moment, Litonya raised her hand and called the People to her fire. Swiftly, they gathered closer, anxious to hear what she had to say.

“My friends,” she greeted them. “It gives me much joy in my heart and happiness in my feet to share the news that my daughter Donoma Chepi has mated with her chosen warrior Koko Kanti.” A loud whoop went up from many of the voices surrounding her, though there were a few dissenters.

“How can we know this, Litonya? Who bears witness to this union?”

“I do,” Honaw spoke up firmly, doing his best not to growl.

“As do I,” Keezheekoni replied. “Even though it is not at all necessary that there *be* witnesses for a joining among us to be recognized, Honaw and I saw the entire mating ritual. And if that was not enough,” glaring around at the few who dared questioned not only Koko and Donoma, but also his and Honaw’s honor, “we spoke to them about it. They are mated.”

“So it is written,” Odahingum stated without hesitation.

“So shall it be,” Takoda answered.

“We must celebrate,” Litonya exclaimed when the men finished their posturing. “We must celebrate and offer our thanks to the Great Spirit.”

Takoda laughed, though he couldn’t keep the grin from forming on his face. “You are simply looking for a reason to have a good party,” he accused and Litonya didn’t deny his words. “But I think you are right, Nutta. We should commemorate this event. We have lived under a cloud for so long because of the unresolved tension between Donoma and Koko. It will be good to celebrate a return to the peace we knew before the rift.” He turned to Honaw. “When do you expect them to return?”

“I do not, Neho’e… at least not for a while. Koko Kanti has unfinished business in the white man’s world, and she could not say how long it might take her to complete it. She did say they would return at some point for your blessing and the blessing of the elders, but that may not be for some time.”

“I think we can celebrate without them,” Litonya declared, “and then we will celebrate again when they return to us.” Odahingum laughed with enthusiasm.

“I agree. We can rejoice at their good fortune and ours now and then celebrate their joining together with them later.” He turned to Keezheekoni. “Do they know how to find us… do they know we have left the path of our buffalo brothers?”

“They are aware, Neho’e,” Keez said with a respectful nod. “We ensured they knew what was going on with the People before we took our leave of them.”

“Then it is settled,” the chieftain announced. “We will have a party now and a celebration later.”

At this proclamation, another cry arose, even from those who still questioned the validity of the joining. A party was a party and any excuse for one was reason enough… especially after the dark cloud they had traveled under lately. It would be good to enjoy themselves again.

************

“It is very big, warrior,” Donoma said as they approached the tiny cabin she called home in her life as Reb Stone. “What is it made of?”

“Mud,” Koko replied succinctly. “And river rocks.”

“It is very pretty,” Donoma commented after a moment. “I like it.”

Koko looked down at her indulgently. “Would you like to see the inside?” Donoma nodded and Koko took Dapples’ reins from her hand and looped them loosely with Black’s around the hitching post. She tugged gently and led Donoma onto the small covered porch, dropping her hand to open the door. Then Koko pulled Donoma into her arms.

“If we were a traditional couple in this world, one of us would carry the other across the threshold to mark the beginning of our new life together in our new home. However, although I appreciate the sentiment, we are not a traditional couple in any sense of the word as far as the white man is concerned and I have no desire to anger my healer by straining myself.”

“You are a very wise woman,” Donoma started before narrowing her eyes in Koko’s direction. “Wait a minute, Koko Kanti – are you saying I am too heavy for a strong warrior… or you are too weak for a lightweight such as myself?”

Without warning, Koko scooped Donoma into her arms, hiding the wince the effort cost her as it pulled at still healing flesh. Not to be deterred, however, she captured Donoma’s lips in a passionate embrace, kissing her ardently as she stepped across the threshold and into the cabin.

The lip lock went on heatedly for some minutes before they were forced to pull away slightly to accommodate their lack of air. Donoma closed her eyes and leaned her forehead into Koko’s, smiling softly.

“I take back what I said, warrior mine.”

“Which part, ka’eskone?” Koko asked with a chuckling tone.

“You are not weak.”

“Am I still wise?”

“Yes, but not as much as I am,” Donoma admitted smugly. “You see, I have you for a mate. You cannot possibly compete with such wisdom.” Koko pulled her head back to comment and Donoma’s eyes opened in surprise, widening more when she looked around. “Oh… my….” she breathed. “When did we move inside? You really…? And here I thought Mother Earth was simply stretching her legs when I felt movement. You um… you can put me down now.”

“I happen to like where you are,” Koko confessed, though she loosened her hold on Donoma and let her slide down til her feet touched the floor once more. “However, we will come back to the remainder of our discussion later. First, I need to unload the horses and get them settled and you need to acquaint yourself with our home.”

“I will help you unload things, warrior. Then we can come back inside and you can help me get acquainted with our home. Despite your impressive display of strength, I have no desire for you to overexert yourself by caring for everything on your own. We are mates, Koko Kanti – let me help you.”

Koko smiled. Here was the child she remembered whose memory she’d cherished grown up. She nodded her head and took Donoma’s hand, allowing her mind to travel back to another place and time as they walked back out the door together… side by side.

************

Even at the age of seven, Donoma had been small – not only short, but petite… dainty. It was one reason Takoda was so protective of her – she simply wasn’t as big as the other children her age. She wasn’t as big as some who were younger than she was. But she had a fierce determination to do anything and everything Koko did… even when she really shouldn’t.

So it wasn’t all that surprising to Koko that Donoma insisted she was old enough to begin training as a warrior. Litonya was horrified – Koko Kanti was an anomaly; an accepted anomaly, but an anomaly nonetheless. Most women of the People never fought… never even held a weapon… never learned to defend themselves. She couldn’t imagine someone like Donoma trying to learn. Not only because of her gender and her size, but also because of her gift – surely she knew better.

Takoda, on the other hand, knew Donoma would not be convinced that she was unable to do anything her beloved best friend could. This was a lesson that needed to be learned by hard experience. So he gave his consent for her to begin her training, but only allowing Koko to be her teacher. He knew not only would she take it seriously and try to teach Donoma, but she would also be better equipped to let Donoma down gently when she was unable to keep up.

He hadn’t figured on Koko’s desire to see Donoma happy or Donoma’s resolution to make Koko proud of her.

The first day had been grueling for them both. Koko had shown Donoma what a real warrior went through on a daily basis during their training period. Several times Donoma wanted to cry in frustration or pain, but she bit her lips and continued to try and follow the instructions that Koko gave her. When the day was over, Koko invited Donoma to her fire. They sat down together side by side; Koko folded her hands together and looked seriously at Donoma.

“Ka’eskone, why are you doing this? Why are you so determined to become a warrior? That is not your path, Donoma… you know this.”

“We are best friends, Koko. I want to be able to help you… to protect you the way you protect me, and I cannot do that if I am not a warrior. It is my place to help you.”

Koko took both of Donoma’s small hands in hers. “Donoma Chepi,” she said tenderly. “You have done more for me as a seer than I have done for you or the tribe as a warrior. Do not discount your strengths, my friend. You are a formidable opponent in your own way. However,” she continued before Donoma could protest, “I am willing to teach you to defend yourself if you would like to learn. It is not the same as being a warrior, but it will give me a measure of comfort.”

“How so?”

Koko’s eyes widened. She should have known better than to confess so much so easily. “It will make you strong without forcing you to become a warrior.”

“I would like that. I would like to be strong like you.”

Koko smiled, and so began Donoma’s training in self-defense.

************

Donoma caught the smile and faraway expression on Koko’s face and squeezed the hand she held to get Koko’s attention. Koko came back to the present with a start and allowed Donoma to pull them to a stop, her eyebrow arched in question.

“What are you smiling at?” This got Donoma a full-out Koko Kanti grin.

“Your words earlier reminded me of a certain precocious seven year old who was determined to help me by becoming a warrior.”

Donoma smiled wryly. “Do you know how close I was to quitting after that first day? I hurt so badly…. I was so happy when you offered to teach me differently.” She paused in thought. “Would you have taught me to be a warrior if I had insisted?”

“For as long as you would have been willing to train, ka’eskone. But I knew then even as you did that being a warrior was never a part of your destiny.”

“No, but I remember how proud I was to learn the defensive techniques you taught me.”

“I remember,” Koko answered fondly and they both let their memories journey back to that time and place.
Chapter XXVIII
It was early, before the sun peeked over the horizon, when Koko called softly for Donoma. Takoda blinked sleepily in the darkness, wondering why he had thought that this was such a good idea. Surely Koko could have waited until a more decent hour to begin Donoma’s training. Then he remembered that she had not been excused from her regular chores and duties and figured she was trying to fit it in without disrupting her normal routine.

Donoma stumbled around quietly, trying to slip into her moccasins without disturbing the rest of her family. She finally made it outside and Honaw sat halfway up and looked at Takoda through partially opened eyelids. “Why is Donoma Chepi wandering outside in the dark with Koko Kanti? It isn’t even close to daylight yet.”

“Koko Kanti is going to teach your sister to be a warrior.”

That made Honaw sit all the way up and open his eyes to look at Takoda fully. “Excuse me? Neho’e, I know I misunderstood you. Donoma is a seven year old girl – a seven year old girl gifted with sight by the Great Spirit. She has no business training to become a warrior.”

Takoda sat up and then rose fully, motioning to Honaw to follow him outside. He stirred up the banked fire and added a few chips, waiting until the blaze caught. With a flick of his wrist, he pulled his blanket more fully around him and took a seat; Honaw did the same.

“She wants to learn, Honaw. She must learn that not all are cut out to become warriors. And Donoma being who she is, she will not learn unless she tries for herself.”

Honaw’s brows rose, but he did not smile. “You expect Koko Kanti to keep her from becoming such? Neho’e, I cannot believe Koko would be so unfair to her advisor.”

Takoda shook his head. “I expect Koko Kanti to be honest with Donoma. If she is honest… if she is fair… Donoma will soon realize that she is not meant to be a warrior. Her gifts lie elsewhere. Koko knows this. She will do what is best for Donoma.”

“You trust her.” Takoda nodded. “But you do not trust us… why?”

“It is not a matter of trust, Honaw. It is a matter of responsibility.” Takoda sighed when Honaw frowned. “Donoma is not like the rest of us – not simply because she was not born of our blood or because she has such a strong gift of sight, but because there is something different about her soul. It is old, Honaw – it has seen many things and borne many burdens. The rest of the People sense this, even if they cannot understand what sets her apart from them. It is why the other children hesitate to include her and why the adults shy away. It has made her sensitive… and the fact that she is small for her age only compounds that.”

“That still does not explain why you allow Koko to teach her things we are not allowed to. I know she is a better warrior, Neho’e, but Donoma is ours. Shouldn’t the responsibility for instructing her be ours as well?”

“Not in this case, Honaw. When Donoma found Koko Kanti and Rae’l, it was because one old soul called out to another. They took responsibility for one another from the beginning. Donoma would never accept training from you or any of her other hestatanemos; as much as she loves each of you, the bond she shares with Koko Kanti is what compels her to this path. She will soon come to understand it is not a wise choice for her.”

“You believe so strongly, Neho’e… have you seen?”

Takoda shook his head. “Only what I can see to be truth between them with my own eyes. The Great Spirit has shown me nothing else regarding them. However, if it would make you feel better to observe them, I will grant you permission to do so….” He held up his hand to keep Honaw from answering before he could finish. “With the understanding that you are not allowed to interfere. You have to trust that Koko Kanti will do what is best for Donoma.”

Honaw nodded gravely. Despite his misgivings about allowing Donoma the opportunity to train as a warrior, he trusted Koko Kanti completely. It was just hard to accept such a dramatic change in Takoda’s attitude concerning Donoma’s safety that he was having a difficult time wrapping his mind around the changes.

“I will not interfere, Neho’e. I will simply watch and report to you what I learn.”

“No Honaw… there is no reason to report anything to me. I told you – I trust Koko to do what is best for Donoma… just as I would. Just as I would trust you and your hestatanemos had the obligation and responsibility fallen to you. Now go… the sun will be up soon and Koko will have started Donoma’s training without you.”

Honaw nodded and rose from his place then headed out towards the prairie where he suspected Koko would start Donoma’s training. Takoda watched him go, shaking his head. He couldn’t blame Honaw for his questions; he only hoped Koko would be as understanding.

Honaw found Koko and Donoma about where he had expected – he knew if Koko was going to train Donoma, even if it was only to show her that being a warrior was not her path, she would take it seriously enough to train her as she would any other warrior candidate. And since the People moved very slowly with the grazing buffalo, the spot didn’t change that often or that fast.

So he took a seat close enough to watch but too far away to be a distraction; then he waited… curious as to how Koko would accomplish what Takoda expected of her. He believed Koko had Donoma’s best interests at heart, but sometimes it was a difficult line to walk – Koko stretching to adulthood while Donoma remained a child.

Koko was adjusting the straps on the small knapsack, making sure it fit correctly. Then she rose and looked at Donoma, crooking an eyebrow at her in question and receiving an affirmative nod. She smiled briefly, and they took off at a gentle lope with Honaw following at a safe distance behind them.

Koko led Donoma out onto the plain where the buffalo were milling in the pre-dawn darkness. Honaw frowned – warriors didn’t gather chips… it wasn’t part of their responsibility to the tribe. Then he cocked his ears and forced himself to focus until he could just make out Koko’s words.

“It is the job of the Nahko’es and the nahtonas to collect chips for the fire. But I am going to teach you as my Neho’e taught me – and he taught me that it is the responsibility of the warrior to protect and defend. And if in doing so we are able to ease the burden of those who feed and clothe us by their efforts on our behalf, then it will be to our credit when our time comes to face the Great Spirit for our reward.” Donoma’s eyes were wide and round as she listened to Koko speak of the warrior’s ways, knowing by the earnestness in both eyes and voice that Koko spoke the truth to her. She nodded and waited for the knowledge Honiahaka had imparted to his daughter that she was willing to share.

“So to that end, this morning we are going to fill your pack with chips. It will serve as your weight as you run and train today. Then tonight, we will give them to the women of the tribe to use for their fires. We will do this every day until your warrior training is complete. It will help you build strength and endurance and it will also keep you a contributing member of our society. My Neho’e felt very strongly about that.”

Donoma’s nose crinkled adorably in distaste and Koko had to bite her lips to keep from smiling. Picking up chips was her least favorite chore and she had secretly hoped that warrior training would get her out of that particular job. However, Koko would not lead her astray – she had promised to teach her and Donoma knew Koko would teach as she had been taught until such time as Donoma was a warrior in good standing or she decided to quit the training.

So Donoma sighed deeply and began slowly picking up chips… until she realized that Koko expected her to run. Then the race was on.

She filled the pack up quickly, then they were headed out across the plain at a run. Koko deliberately went slower than normal to allow Donoma to keep up, but fast enough that she had to push herself to do so. They traveled in a wide circle, jumping and rolling along the ground at odd intervals. Donoma wondered what any of it had to do with becoming a warrior, but Koko was so good at it, there was obviously a point in learning. So she bit her lips to keep back the tears that wanted to fall and pressed on, intent on keeping up with her best friend and now teacher.

They ran all morning and Honaw was impressed by Donoma’s determination and Koko Kanti’s fairness. Everything she had done so far was exactly as she had done with him and Keez and the rest of the warrior trainees of his age group. There was no quarter given for the fact that Donoma was much younger or smaller or that she was Koko’s best friend as well as her warrior advisor. Honaw knew that was because Koko knew all too well that those things didn’t matter on the battlefield – therefore, they had no place in training. Either you learned or you died.

When the sun reached its midday zenith, Koko brought them to a halt and Donoma fell to the ground unmoving. Koko knelt beside her, speaking so softly Honaw couldn’t make out the words, but it was clear from the look on her face and the look on Donoma’s that Koko was concerned with Donoma’s well-being. Donoma was equally unwavering in her single-mindedness to continue whatever course Koko had set out for them.

With a nod of acceptance, Koko rose from her place and began giving Donoma instructions on her next task… in this case, that of building a fire for the two of them to share.

“Eventually, you will learn to hunt and trap and fish as all warriors must to provide for their needs and the needs of their family, but today we will share the meal that my Nahko’e prepared for us.” Koko opened her own pack and removed the food that Rachel had given her that morning – meat pies and trail bars. Donoma accepted the food, but she merely looked at it for the longest time… so long that Koko raised an eyebrow at her questioningly and reached to take the sustenance away. Donoma shook her head and clutched the food to her.

“Donoma?”

“I will eat, Koko Kanti. I just need to rest for a few moments.”

“Rest quickly, Donoma Chepi. We still have much to do today.”

Donoma sighed heavily, but started eating, knowing if the afternoon went like the morning had, she would need every bit of strength to endure to the end.

Koko allowed Donoma to rest a little longer than she normally would, not taking any pleasure from the pain Donoma was suffering but knowing it was the only way for the child to realize that being a warrior was not her path. But far sooner than Donoma wanted, Koko was putting out the fire she had so painstakingly built and standing to her feet.

Donoma rose slowly, the heavy pack making it difficult with its added weight and distorted balance. Finally she was standing and she looked at Koko expectantly. Koko smiled gently.

“One of the first things a warrior needs to learn is how to listen,” she instructed softly. “Not only to my words, but also to the world around them.” She blew out a breath. “However, I do not think that should be our primary concern with your training at the moment… not when Takoda is still training you to focus your gift inwardly. You must master your gift of sight before we can turn your attention to the world outside your mind.”

“But Koko….” Donoma stopped speaking as soon as Koko held up her hand and looked at her.

“There are still many part of warrior training you can work on in the meantime. Today we are going to work on balance.” Koko knelt and opened up her pack, removing two smooth, heavy stones from within. “Hold out your hands, palms up,” she commanded softly and Donoma did as she was told, accepting a stone into each hand. “Now… stand perfectly still, wavering neither left nor right, forward or back.”

Donoma’s eyes widened. Surely Koko had to be kidding… this wasn’t part of warrior training, was it? Donoma had expected warrior training to be about fighting and technique and defending herself – not about picking up chips and running and holding heavy rocks.

She felt herself falling to one side and shifted her foot to keep herself from falling. Immediately Koko was in her face… not in a hateful way, but drawing Donoma’s attention to herself. “Donoma Chepi… look at me,” waiting for the green eyes to lock on hers. “You must focus, Donoma. You have to be able to maintain your balance in all types of situations without thinking about it. But to ingrain that behavior, you must first train your body to do so. That is what this exercise is about… focusing your mind so that your body learns to do instinctively.”

“This is hard, Koko Kanti,” Donoma stated plaintively.

“Yes, Donoma… it is. It is also necessary. This is how my Neho’e taught me and how I have trained those I have instructed. I know no other way to teach you.”

Donoma nodded slowly. “I will try, Koko Kanti. I will do my best.”

“That is all I ask, Donoma. It will not come easily or quickly. But it will come.”

Honaw watched in silence as Donoma endeavored to remain completely still and balanced. It was so difficult, he remembered, thinking back to the time when he had been the one training. Koko had been a little less indulgent with those already in warrior training. They should have had balance and endurance, but she had found them lacking. Not only the trainees, but also the instructors – she had embarrassed the lot of them who challenged her, as Honaw recalled.

So he sat and observed, noting that even though Koko seemed to be in a state of meditation, she was hyper-aware of Donoma’s every movement. For hours Donoma stood and Koko knelt in front of her. Only when the sun was stretching towards the horizon did she rise and remove the rocks from Donoma’s hands. Donoma’s arms dropped to her sides and her chin went to her chest, but otherwise she didn’t move. Koko placed the stones in her pack and she motioned to Donoma to move. Unlike the morning, Koko did not force Donoma to move at a run. Instead, they walked briskly back towards the camp, Donoma tripping and stumbling to keep up.

When they reached the camp, Donoma went directly into the home she shared with Takoda and Litonya and Koko continued on to her own. After several minutes, Honaw followed Donoma’s steps while Takoda crossed from Odahingum’s tent where he had been sitting with the chieftain.

“May I?” waiting for Koko to invite him to sit before doing so. She motioned to the seat beside her and Takoda took the place she offered. Koko looked at him and cocked an eyebrow, waiting expectantly. “How did it go?”

“Honaw did not speak to you?” knowing he hadn’t but interested in hearing why he’d had Honaw keeping an eye on them.

“You know he did not, Koko Kanti. There was no opportunity for us to do so… even if I had wanted to do so. He went of his own accord, Koko Kanti. He could not understand why I would allow you to teach Donoma Chepi the way of the warrior when I have been adamant about protecting her.”

“He did not trust me?”

“He did not trust *me*. There is a difference. I did notice that Donoma looked as though she wanted to cry.”

“She did well, Takoda. I pushed her – not hard, but I did push. She never cried and she never quit.”

“Do you think she will take to it then?”

“No, Takoda; she wants to do this for me… not for her. I am going to talk to her after the evening meal and give her another option. I am going to offer to teach her some defensive arts. Personally, I would feel better if she could defend herself and it will help her body to become stronger. I think she would take to it much better than the hard-core training that the warriors go through. But I will not force her, Takoda; it will be her choice.”

“I understand, Koko. Thank you for looking out for her.”

Koko smiled. “She is my best friend, Takoda… my warrior advisor. It is my privilege to do so for as long as she will allow it.”

************

“Did you really tell my Neho’e that?” Donoma asked as they slowly unloaded the horses. The saddlebags were placed on one side and the rest was stacked neatly on the other to be put away in the small lean-to that was attached to the cabin. They released the horses to run in the meadow behind the small house and started picking up the things to put them away.

“Yes,” Koko finally responded. “I did.”

“I am glad I did not know that before we talked; I was already angry enough at you. That would have simply made it worse.”

“Because I lied?”

“Because you took my choice away when you left. But we have talked about that, and you did give me the choice you told Neho’e you would. I am so glad you did. I liked learning the things you taught me; it made me feel strong and capable.”

“You were always strong and capable, ka’eskone. I simply helped you focus.” They put away their loads and returned to pick up more. “Tell me… do you still do the exercises I taught you?”

Donoma smiled. “Up until your unexpected return to my life, I did them every day. It was a way to keep you close even when I was alone. No one bothered me when I was engaged in practice. But for some reason I have been a little preoccupied since your arrival.”

Koko grinned. “I cannot imagine what could have possibly caused you to lose focus like that. But perhaps we could work on it together again.”

“I would like that, Koko. It is something I was always happy to share with you.”

“So… tomorrow morning then or would you prefer tonight instead?”

“Tomorrow morning – it is the most peaceful way to start the day. Besides, you promised me a tour when we are done here and if you want to know the truth, I would like to spend tonight just… connecting.”

“I would disagree on that point, ka’eskone… the most peaceful way to start the day, I mean. I would never disagree about connecting with you, beloved. There is nothing more precious to me than that.”

“Then let us finish putting things away, Nutta. I want my tour and some quiet time with you. Tomorrow is soon enough to begin our exercises again.”

Koko smiled at Donoma’s words and hefted the last of their belongings into her arms. “Take the saddlebags inside, ka’eskone. I will return as soon as I have stored these. Then you will have your tour.”

Donoma returned her look and headed inside. Life had certainly taken an interesting and unexpected turn and she was looking forward to exploring it with Koko.
Chapter XXIX
“This bed is very decadent, warrior,” Donoma commented when they were curled up together later that evening. Koko had been as good as her word and she had taken Donoma around the small meadow and down along the small creek that ran behind the cabin. Donoma took great delight in watching Black and Dapples chase up and down the wide prairie. She idly wondered what determined the boundary they seemed to respect, but it was only a passing thought. Mostly, she was simply enamored of the beauty surrounding her – surrounding her being quite literal in her case.

Donoma leaned back into the strong body wrapped around hers as they watched the sun set. Only when the sun dropped below the horizon did they head back indoors, leaving the horses to play. It was then that Donoma sat down upon the featherbed for the first time, a look of shocked pleasure crossing her face. Koko just grinned at her, sitting down and pulling Donoma into her arms before laying them down together in the middle of the bed.

“You did not try the bed when you came in earlier, ka’eskone?”

“I was waiting for you, warrior. You promised me a tour – I expected that to include the bed.” Koko laughed and Donoma smiled at the joy that spread throughout her at the sound. “Instead, I emptied out the saddlebags and put things away. I probably did not put things away where they belong, but for the time being they are put away.”

“You did not need to do that, Donoma.”

“I know,” came the reply. “But it gave me a chance to look around a little, Koko. You are very skilled, my warrior. You have created a lovely home here… very pleasant.”

“I have had time to make it comfortable – to learn how to create the things I needed to be so.”

“You have been happy here then?”

“I have been… content… here.” Koko sighed. “I expected this to be my home until I died, Donoma. I never thought I would ever go back to the People… not for any reason. When I was not out hunting bounties, I was here, and you know I was never one to sit quietly.”

“Unless you were listening.”

“Unless I was listening,” Koko agreed. “But I could not sit and listen all the time. So I had plenty of time to build this place and to make it a comfortable place to be. I discovered I am not fond of unexpected storms if I have no where to escape to. Denim does not dry well and it chafes.”

“Do you like it here?” No accusation, just curiosity.

“I like parts of it,” Koko said honestly. “The peace, the privacy, the featherbed,” she added with a sly grin. Donoma chuckled. “I would have remained content, Donoma, but I never would have been happy.”

Donoma listened to the words and the tone and snuggled further down into Koko’s embrace. “I could be happy here, Koko. The bed is very comfortable and I like the cabin. But I will be happy anywhere we are together.”

“As will I, beloved.” A beat. “What would you like to do tomorrow?”

Donoma shrugged. “I do not know, Koko Kanti. I have never been away from the People like this before. I have never had to think about it… never had to choose. What do you usually do?”

Koko squeezed Donoma gently. “It depends,” she answered truthfully. “Some days I would go into town… for supplies or to check in with Stephen or just for a break from my own company. Most days, though, I would stay here. There are always things to do, especially with the garden patch at this time of the year and throughout the summer.” Donoma nodded, remembering the small bit of cleared land. “And there are always repairs and upgrades to work on – my next project was actually to make a workable tub for that space over there,” pointing to indicate the area of the cabin she meant.

“Why would you want a tub, Koko?”

“For bathing in, ka’eskone… to get clean.”

“But why do you need one, warrior? You have a perfectly nice stream right outside your door… literally.”

“Ah, Donoma… one day you will have to let me introduce you to the pleasures of a hot bath.” Donoma’s brows furrowed and she sat up to look at Koko Kanti.

“Why one day, Koko? Why not now?”

Koko chuckled. “Well, mostly because I have not built the tub yet and the only other place to get a hot bath nearby at the moment is at Miss Kitty’s place in town.”

Donoma scowled. “Who is Miss Kitty and why does she have the only place to get a hot bath?”

“I promise I will introduce you if and when we ever go into town. She owns the local saloon and brothel and she already knows all about you. She’s the one that looked after me when I first came to town – gave me a place to sleep and taught me who and what to look out for. She has spent many nights listening to me talk about you.”

“And why does she have a tub? Are they not common for the white man?”

“No… they are considered a luxury. It seems that more folks back east have them… you know, where the big cities and the wealthy are. White men that travel out west though, they tend to have little room or regard for items that are deemed luxuries. So Miss Kitty is quite proud of the fact that she has one; besides, it brings in quite a bit of business for her.”

Donoma cocked a questioning eyebrow at Koko. Koko smiled and smoothed it out.

“She runs a brothel, ka’eskone,” she reiterated, then realized Donoma had no frame of reference for the term. “She keeps a house where women are available for mating for a price.” There was a look of horror in Donoma’s eyes. “I know, Nutta, but it is the way of the white man here. But,” Koko continued, “Miss Kitty has a bathtub that she also rents out for a small fee and after I have been on the trail for days, it is a nice treat.”

Donoma chewed her lip thoughtfully. “Then perhaps we need to make a trip into town. I believe I would like to meet Miss Kitty and see this bathtub.”

“Are you sure, ka’eskone? I do not want you to be uncomfortable and people will stare. Not because you are of the People or because you are a woman, but because you are new and different. They will watch you to see if you can function in their society.”

“Are you trying to talk me out of this warrior? I thought you wanted me to go into town.”

“I do, Nutta, but I want you to go on your own terms… not because you feel compelled to do so.”

“Will you be with me, Koko Kanti?”

“I will not leave your side, ka’eskone.”

“Then I have nothing to worry about.”

Koko smiled. It had been a long time since someone other than herself had shown such unwavering faith in her and she found she liked the way it made her feel. The fact that is was Donoma simply made it sweeter. “We can go into town whenever you want, Donoma. I told you that decision would be left completely up to you.”

“Then let us go into town tomorrow, Koko Kanti. I believe it would be better to go sooner than to wait.”

“And why is that, ka’eskone?”

“Several reasons, actually. One is because I cannot let this fear rule me; another is there will be little time for people to start talking… and we both know they will – it is the nature of things. But mostly because I could not find anything to make dinner with that did not come out of the saddlebags.”

Koko laughed at the seriousness with which Donoma delivered her reasons. Donoma sat up and crossed her arms over her chest. Koko sat up behind her and embraced her, holding on when Donoma tried to shrug out of her grasp. “I am not laughing at you, Nutta… I am laughing at me.”

Donoma turned and cocked a disbelieving eye in Koko direction. Koko leaned forward and kissed her nose. “Your reasons are well thought out and practical, and I agree with them completely. I just had not realized that I had neglected to show you the storage room.”

“The storage room,” Donoma repeated with a frown. “Is that not where we placed all the things we removed from the horses?”

Koko shook her head. “No, ka’eskone. That is technically the storage shed.” She unwrapped herself from Donoma and stood, then offered her hand to help Donoma stand as well. They took the few steps required to get to the tiny area Koko had built as her kitchen, and she bent and tugged on a groove in the floor Donoma hadn’t noticed before. When Koko pulled hard enough, the floor moved and revealed a cellar.

Donoma peered down and then looked back at Koko. “That is very clever, warrior, but is it not terribly inconvenient for you?”

“It could be if I did not have small containers up here that I refilled from the larger ones I keep down there. This is so I do not have to go into town for supplies except once or twice a year.”

“Can we go down there?” For answer, Koko lifted the lantern from the wall and took Donoma’s hand, leading her down into the cool darkness.

Donoma marveled at the cool, dark space – lined with shelves and containing large casks in the middle. Donoma did have to wonder how Koko had managed to lug them down the stairs safely, then took the time to look around. She found the casks contained dry staples – sugar, flour, salt and cornmeal. Another cask held a brine that Koko explained was salt pork and two smaller casks held hardtack and pickles. The brine made Donoma sneeze and wary of trying either the pork or the pickles.

On the ceiling against one wall hung a variety of smoke cured meats and two walls held a huge assortment of glass jars. Moving closer, Donoma could see that many stood empty, waiting to be filled while the rest held food products of some kind, though she couldn’t readily identify them from where she was standing. There were also two large bins that contained some wrinkled potatoes and green-topped onions.

“This is amazing, Koko Kanti. Where did all the bounty come from? How did you manage…?”

“I have learned to do many new things since coming to the white man’s world to live, ka’eskone. It was the only way to survive – they do not live as the People do.”

Donoma looked around again. “I can see that,” she acknowledged, looking around once more before turning to head back up the stairs. Koko followed her, snagging the lamp and closing the trap door when they were both clear. “The People would not know what to do with such bounty or such indulgence,” motioning to the bed.

Koko smiled. “I think they would adjust if they had to, ka’eskone, just as I did. But I would not change the old ways; they have served the People well for many generations. I would not want them to be like the white man. Too many white men remind me of my Neho’e’s tribe – disregarding the welfare of those they perceive to be weaker or less than they are and abusing the Mother that provides us with life and sustenance.”

“Then why do you stay, warrior?”

“Because in some twisted way, ka’eskone, I fit in here and I have a purpose.”

“You *had* a purpose with the People, Koko Kanti.”

“But until just recently I thought that purpose was lost, Donoma Chepi. And it was good to know I made a difference in the white man’s world. The name of Reb Stone is feared throughout the territory by those who would break the law.”

Donoma shook her head. “I cannot believe I had never heard that name before.”

“That is because the People have stayed off the path of destruction the white man has carved for himself across the west. I fear that that will not always be the case. There is much greed here – they covet our horses and our land… land that we have respected for ages. That greed is behind the attack that was perpetuated against you.”

“Will that cause problems for us if we go into town, Koko?”

“No, ka’eskone. I told Stephen I would allow him to handle things for now; I will not go back on my word unless Washburn is stupid enough to try to start something with me. But I imagine Murph will be surprised to see us so soon.”

“Probably, given my hesitation this morning, but I think it is best to get it over with. Besides, I am somewhat anxious to meet this ‘Miss Kitty’ and discover the apparent joys of a hot bath.” She yawned widely and tugged on the hand that Koko still held within her grasp. “However, first I would like to sleep on this soft bed.”

Koko grinned and drew Donoma down to the bed, seating her and then kneeling in front of her to remove the soft hide boots she wore. Then she stood and began disrobing, nostrils flaring at the look of desire that burned from Donoma’s eyes. She had a feeling sleep might be coming for them later rather than sooner tonight.

************

Reuben Washburn sat at his desk rereading the telegram he had received from his father.

Cast the first Stone. STOP. (it read) Vengeance is ours. STOP. Time for payment. STOP.

Washburn scrubbed a hand over his chin, the buzzing sound a loud rasp in the otherwise quiet room. Telling his father about the death of his younger brother hadn’t been pleasant, and from his response, Mordecai Washburn hadn’t taken the news well.

Reuben moved his hand to his eyes, trying to rub away the headache he could feel forming behind them. Although he absolutely wanted revenge against Reb Stone for any number of things, he was not ready to make her pay for his brother’s death yet. For one thing, he had no way of knowing where she was – the last he had heard was that she was chasing Hobbs’ gang and the men that had returned from the first expedition hadn’t seen her when they’d stumbled across the big black stallion. Worse, he had no way to collect the horses Leroy had been after… not the black or any of the horses they’d actually been sent to recover. The colonel had put a moratorium on rounding up any more animals until they could determine what had happened to Leroy. He wasn’t convinced of Stone’s guilt.

The problem was that men who had been part of Leroy’s scouting party were unwilling to disobey the colonel’s order. It had been different going out under orders and culling the best of the herd for selling before the army got their hands on them. It was something altogether different to directly disobey an order. Most of the men appreciated the security being part of the army gave them. Now Reuben had no other recourse for finding either Stone or the wild horses ranging the prairie than to turn to some of the same outlaws he was supposed to protect the masses from.

Not that that particularly bothered him really, except as it affected his bottom line. Mercenaries and outlaws tended to want a larger cut of the profit than soldiers he could order to do his bidding. However, at this juncture, he really didn’t have much other choice – his father would just have to understand… or not, as the case may be… that his profit margin was fixing to drop significantly.

His other problem… finding Stone… that was more a matter of patience on his part. If she was still alive, and he had no reason to believe otherwise at this juncture, he merely needed to wait until she made her next trip into town. Then he could make his move to exact revenge. If she had been killed by Hobbs’ gang, word would reach him sooner or later and though not as satisfying as destroying her himself, it would serve its purpose.

The sad thing, Reuben reflected as he sat back in his chair, was that Reb Stone would have been a fabulous ally had she been amenable to his suggestion that she join them, and Leroy would probably still be alive. Of course, Leroy would have had difficulties working with Stone; he made no bones about his hatred for ‘the abomination’, as he had been wont to refer to her. But Reuben could have kept him in line, even with Leroy’s fierce covetousness of the black stallion. They’d have found a way to work around it, even if it had meant threatening Leroy with telling Mordecai.

That would have been effective, Reuben had to admit. He wasn’t afraid of much, but his father did tend to scare the shit out of people… even him.

For that reason Reuben wasn’t looking forward to relaying the news to his father about the current state of affairs, but better that than having Mordecai deciding he needed to investigate the situation personally. Not only would that go a long way towards exposing their activities, but it was likely to throw everything into chaos. Mordecai just had that effect on things he grew impatient with.

So he got up from his seat and went to the window, letting his mind wander as he tried to decide the best way to respond to his father’s telegram. The bell announcing the evening meal rang and he turned back to the water bowl to wash up. Spencer required both officers and men to wash before meals while they were in the fort. Reuben had to grudgingly admit that it did make sense – even he had noticed the men tended to be sick less under this rule.

He wiped his hands on the towel kept beside the bowl for that purpose, then snatched up his hat and headed out the door. He had a little time to consider his answer to his father. Right now, he needed to focus on his duties. There was no reason to draw any more attention to himself at the present. Leroy’s death had done more than enough in that regard.

Perhaps that is what he would tell Mordecai – that Leroy’s death meant things had to go slowly for just a little while. Even Mordecai would understand the undue attention Reuben was under and not want him to do anything that would draw any more unwarranted scrutiny. That would naturally upset the entire operation, and no one wanted that.

With a sigh, Reuben entered the mess hall. He’d get it all figured out eventually – he just needed eventually to come sooner rather than later.

Then without any further ado, Reuben sat down at the officers’ table and waited for the rest of the company to join him.
Chapter XXX
It was an odd noise that drew Donoma from the depths of sleep. She blinked open green eyes, causing the body beneath her to shift and tighten the embrace she was being held in. Donoma blinked again, this time eliciting a chuckle from deep within Koko’s chest. Lips brushed over the top of her head.

“It is just the rain, ka’eskone,” the low voice burred. “Go back to sleep.”

Donoma shifted her head on Koko’s shoulder, allowing her to listen to the strange sound of rain falling on wooden shingles. Her hands started drifting in random patterns over Koko’s skin and Koko reciprocated by running her hands up and down Donoma’s arms.

They basked in their shared warmth and the tingles their touches caused in one another, slipping into a comfortable place where only the two of them existed. Eventually, however, Donoma broke the silence.

“I guess this means we will wait to make our trip into town.”

Koko smiled, and though Donoma could not see it, she did hear it in her voice. “I believe you are correct, ka’eskone. Somehow,
I cannot garner much enthusiasm for being out in the cold rain when I can stay in this soft, warm bed with you.”

“Never let it be said you are not a woman without priorities, warrior mine. Perhaps this is a sign from the Great Spirit that we should slow down and enjoy life together for a bit.”

“And perhaps it is simply rain, Donoma, though I will never turn down any opportunity to enjoy life with you. I feel like we have so much time to make up for.” A beat. “Do you remember the last time I held you in my arms like this?”

Donoma nodded her head against Koko’s torso, her hair tickling the warrior and making her squirm. “Oh yes… it was right before you left. We had gone out to find some silence….

************

Despite the warmth of the day, the nights tended towards chilly, but made the sky clearer and brighter as the stars emerged from their daylight hiding place. Donoma and Koko had gone out into the vast prairie in the late afternoon, determined to find a bit of peace. The tribe had been celebrating some victory or other, but all Koko wanted was to bask in Donoma’s presence in the quiet of a wide open sky.

When they were far enough away, Koko flopped down onto the ground and tucked her hands under her head. Donoma laid her head on Koko’s belly and together they stared up the cloud filled sky searching for patterns in them. This was almost as fun as star chasing and Koko planned to stay out long enough to do that activity as well.

The sun went down, creating beautiful, colorful patterns on the western horizon even as the eastern sky darkened with night. Slowly, the stars began to peek and pop out and Donoma shifted her position to curl up in the warmth of Koko’s strong arms.

“How is it you always manage to be so warm, Koko?” she asked shivering. “It is not even remotely warm out here now and yet you are toasty almost to the point of being hot.”

“It must be the company I keep, ka’eskone. The Great Spirit has determined my sole purpose in life is to keep you warm – therein lies my skill as your protector. Hey!” jumping when Donoma poked her in the ribs. “What did you do that for?”

Donoma rolled her eyes and smirked. “Like you do not know, Koko Kanti. This particular skill may be exclusively for me, but it is certainly not the only one you possess. Ask any of the warriors who have sat under your tutelage or whom you have led into battle. I am fairly confident they would be happy to inform you of any other number of skills of which you are in possession of.”

“Yes, but what are the skills of war worth when you so obviously do not require them as you do the warmth which I regularly supply you with? I believe the Great Spirit is showing me a new path,” laughing this time when Donoma poked her.

“I believe you need to turn your attention to the stars, warrior and see if perhaps there is a message there. Although,” Donoma continued with a smirk, “after the cloud chasing we did this afternoon, I fear for your eyesight. You have interesting vision.”

Koko poked out her lip so far, Donoma had to bite her own to keep from laughing out loud. Honestly… any farther and it would get stepped on. “You do not like what I see in the clouds?”

“I do not *see* what you see in the clouds, warrior, anymore than I see what you see in the stars.” Donoma leaned up on her elbows and brushed the unruly hair back out of Koko’s eyes. Then she cupped her face in one hand and rubbed against Koko’s bottom lip until it retreated and feeling Koko shudder against her. “That is why I find them interesting.”

Koko looked at her disbelievingly at the glib explanation, but Donoma’s expression showed only sincerity. She tightened her hold on Donoma’s body, forcing her to lie down once more, then she kissed the blonde head that tucked itself under her chin. Donoma angled herself so she could hear Koko’s heartbeat beneath her ear, never realizing when the strong steady beat lulled her into sleep.

***********

“That was only a few days before you left,” Donoma said softly. “I remember the feeling of completion and warmth and protectiveness that I felt that night – it is still one of my favorite memories.” She paused. “I look back now and wonder how I could have missed what was so clear in your eyes and expression… what was so obvious in my own heart and mind despite my blindness to it. You never let anyone take liberties with you the way I did.”

Despite Donoma’s serious demeanor, Koko Kanti chuckled, causing Donoma to lean up until she could meet twinkling blue eyes. Koko struggled to bring her mirth under control and looked at Donoma seriously, though she couldn’t quite hide the mischief that lurked in the back of her gaze. Donoma arched an eyebrow in question and Koko nearly lost it again; only superior warrior stoicism allowed her to keep a straight face.

“Ka’eskone… no one but you would *dare* take liberties with me, especially of that sort. They all like living too much. You, however, are the exception to that rule. With you, they are not liberties – it is your place… where you belong; therefore, they are simply your due.”

Donoma didn’t answer verbally – Koko had robbed her of thought, of speech, or her very breath. Instead, she leaned down and brushed Koko’s lips, barely touching and causing Koko to follow her as she pulled away, seeking a deeper touch.

Donoma pulled back, teasing Koko, confident she would pursue. Not only did Koko pursue, but Donoma suddenly found herself at the bottom of a very warm, wonderful pile of focused warrior passion. It was a while before thought or speech or breathing were part of her processes again.

************

“I did not tell the truth,” Donoma said some time later. “*That* is the most peaceful way to start the day,” stretching luxuriously against all the bare skin she was tucked into and giving Koko a satisfied smile. She shifted until she was turned on her side, tracing the smooth skin beneath her fingers with the gentlest of touches, edging carefully around still tender skin. “I could stay here with you….”

A rumbling between them short-circuited Donoma’s words and caused a chuckle to ripple through both of them. They caught each other’s eyes and Donoma slid from her place at Koko’s side, allowing Koko to get up with her. They slipped into the bare minimum of clothing they could manage to ward off the chill, and Koko made her way to the small stove to light it while Donoma started gathering supplies to put together a meal for them.

She decided she really liked the cellar pantry, despite the chilly darkness. She wondered if Koko would teach her how to keep things in the empty glass jars once the garden was producing. Donoma thought planting in the white man’s world would have to be similar to what the People did – the only difference being that the People left it to grow on its own while they followed the herd and the white man tended to remain in one place to care for it.

The stove was lit and Koko was doing the same to the fireplace when Donoma emerged from the cellar. She shivered and moved closer to the stove, greedily glad for the warmth it provided. After a moment, she felt the warmth of Koko’s body against her and sighed in contentment.

“It is funny,” she commented as she relished their closeness. “If I was outdoors with the People in this weather, I would not notice the cold dampness unless the fire was put out.”

“That is one reason you felt it so much,” Koko agreed. “Neither fire was lit and I have noticed the larger the space, the cooler the air when it is wet like this, no matter the thickness of the walls.” She leered in Donoma’s direction. “That is one reason it was so difficult to get out of bed this morning.”

“Will it always be like this for us, do you suppose?”

Koko shook her head thoughtfully after a few minutes of silent consideration. “No, ka’eskone… I do not think it will. Our relationship has been evolving since we first met. It was always becoming more, better, different. I can see no reason why that would change now.”

Donoma turned to face Koko. “I think I like that, warrior. Now, let me prepare us something to eat, then you and I need to do our exercises together.”

Koko patted Donoma on the bottom and snatched up the pail closest to the door. This was going to be a whole new experience… for both of them.

************

Their meal was incredibly successful, especially when one stopped to consider that never before had Donoma attempted to cook on a stove or the enclosed fire that came with it. Koko was thrilled, comforted in a way she never expected to be in this place. Donoma was a little more frustrated, but knew that with time she could find the best way to make flatbread in that confounded stove.

At the moment, however, the two women were engaged in the defensive routine Koko had taught Donoma when she was seven. Koko was a little rusty, having very little opportunity to indulge in this sort of practice and being predisposed to reaching for her guns at this point in her life. They had saved her life many times in the five years she had been away from the People, and she didn’t regret her efficiency with them. But she had missed this more than she’d allowed herself to realize… especially with Donoma.

Koko stood back at first, watching the beauty of the dance as Donoma made her way through the movements Koko had so painstakingly taught her years before. After the first circuit, Donoma stood back as well, pinning Koko in place with her gaze.

“Are you going to simply watch me, warrior, or do you plan to participate in this little exercise at some point?”

“I was enjoying the image in front of me, if you must know,” Koko replied drolly.

“Uh huh… and it has nothing to do with the fact that you haven’t done this in years.”

A dark brow spiked into an equally dark hairline. “Are you saying I no longer remember how to defend myself against a lightweight like you? You think the ingrained habits of a lifetime simply disappear if they are not utilized properly every day?”

“I seem to recall getting a similar lecture many times during my training, warrior… something along the lines of needing to train every day to keep from losing my skills. Are you telling me that it is not true now?” stalking closer to Koko. Blue eyes widened comically – Donoma had never been so aggressive and there was something surprisingly appealing about it. Then Donoma was completely in Koko’s space and poking a finger into her chest. “Tell me, Koko – were you lying to me then?”

“No, of course not, ka’eskone,” holding up her hands in surrender.

Donoma grinned. “Defend yourself then, warrior,” and she moved swiftly into a defensive position. Koko blinked then grinned ferally.

“Prepare yourself, ka’eskone. I may not have done this in years, but it is still a very real part of who I was… and who I am.”

“Put your arrows where your bows are, warrior.” Then there were no more words as they started the dance between them once more.

When they were done, Koko was smiling broadly. “You have done well, ka’eskone. You have far surpassed the skill you had achieved training with me. Did you practice with your hestatanemos while I was gone?”

Donoma shook her head. “No, Koko Kanti. When you left, I continued to work on my own. I could not allow anyone to take part in this… or anything else we shared. At first I was too hurt and then I was too angry. Honaw kept watch – there was never a day I was without protection. But he watched from a distance; it was all I would allow.”

Koko nodded. She was well acquainted with Donoma’s stubborn streak. She bit her lip pensively and took a deep breath. “Did you… did you ever consider leaving the People – coming to find me?”

Donoma stared into blue eyes for a long moment. “Not as a realistic path that I could follow, no. You must remember, Koko, that at first I believed you were only going to be gone for a few days and at that point, Neho’e would not have allowed me to go regardless of the circumstances. By the time I was old enough to choose the path best suited to me, I was too angry to look for you.”

She paused a moment and straightened, crossing over to the half filled pail and scooped out a bit of still cool water. She swallowed carefully then met Koko’s eyes again. “In some ways I wish I had; in others, I am glad I did not.”

Koko cocked her head. “How do you mean, ka’eskone?” Her voice and expression were neither accusing nor judgmental – there was more curiosity than anything else.

“I wish I had in that we would not have lost so much time between us. I am glad I did not as I am not confident things would have worked out so well if I had forced the issue then. You would have been angry as well.”

“That is very true, Donoma. I would have been defensive… moreso than I have been now.”

“It would be nice, though, if the Great Spirit would be a little more exact when he shares visions,” Donoma added ruefully. “It would make things a little less complicated and perhaps somewhat easier to figure out the interpretation of them.”

Koko laughed heartily at Donoma’s pronouncement. “Oh beloved,” she gasped in English. “I do not think the Great Spirit or the gods of the white man have any desire or intention to make things less complicated for the creatures that call themselves human beings. There is no entertainment for them in making life less difficult for us.”

“You believe that is why we are here, Koko Kanti? To entertain those who watch over us and provide for us?”

Koko took Donoma’s hand and led her to the small sitting area in front of the fireplace. “I believe,” she said as they settled together comfortably in a corner of the tiny couch, “that the Great Spirit offers guidance to those that seek it and that our Mother Earth provides for us as long as we do our part in providing for ourselves.” She shrugged and shook her head. “I cannot say about the gods of the white man; there appear to be many.”

“Do they not believe in the Great Spirit and Mother Earth then?”

“Not that I have been able to discover,” Koko replied. “There is a man in town known as Reverend Hawkins – he is considered the shaman of the One God. Nice enough man, although some of his beliefs… well, it is no wonder there are so many other gods they look to… for whatever reason.”

“Such as?” Donoma asked, cocking her head to one side.

Koko shrugged. “Hard to know for sure – for some it is money or drink or the pleasure of women as they can afford them. For others it is what they can claim… what they can own for themselves. Then there are a few who believe in only themselves or do not believe in anything at all – they are the ones struggling to get by.” She shook her dark head. “I still do not understand much of their ideas.”

Donoma blinked slowly as she pondered Koko’s words. “I can understand your difficulty, warrior. I cannot comprehend that way of thinking.”

“Good,” Koko stated firmly. “I never want you to become like the white man is, Donoma. So many of them are cold and careless and unfeeling. I love your warmth and caring and passion – even when the passion is anger. I hope you never learn to understand.”

Donoma curled into Koko’s arms and laid her head on her shoulder. She smiled when Koko tightened her embrace and leaned her cheek against her blonde head. The next little while passed peacefully – until Koko determined it was her turn to cook for Donoma.

It was a most interesting afternoon.

************

The next few days passed in very similar fashion. The rain continued – sometimes heavy… sometimes barely misting. But Donoma and Koko fell into a comfortable routine, appreciating their time alone together in a different way than they had out on the prairie. Donoma didn’t take time to analyze it – it was enough to simply enjoy.

Donoma was thrilled to find that Koko had added to her mother’s somewhat meager collection of books and they spent evenings snuggled together reading new material and savoring old.

When the rain stopped, the ground was more than saturated and Donoma realized it would be even longer before they were able to take that trip into town. She found that didn’t bother her – despite her enthusiasm for it before, she’d realized that it would happen in good time and for the time being, she was more than content with transitioning into the white man’s world with only Koko for company.

With the return of the sun, Koko decided it was time to air out and clean the cabin and Donoma agreed with her. Soon they were cleaning floors and walls and clothes and bedding, opening the windows and doors to allow the air to filter through.

It was slow going, but they took pleasure in doing the task together and they took their time – enjoying the fresh air and sunshine. Finally, though, their home was sparklingly clean and fresh as were they and their clothing.

That evening, almost two weeks since they had run into Stephen Murphy, they curled up together again in the middle of their large, fresh bed. Too tired to do anything more than cuddle, they were almost asleep when Koko mumbled softly, “Do you want to try to go into town in the morning?”

Donoma nodded her head, and they settled down to sleep. Tomorrow would come soon enough.
Chapter XXXI
Reuben Washburn was frustrated – deeply, seriously frustrated. His father Mordecai hadn’t been particularly thrilled about his reasons for stalling their operations temporarily, but he did understand Reuben’s reasoning – he even agreed with it. It didn’t make him happy, though, especially having to agree to stay out of things and allow Reuben to handle things… for a while.

His take on Reb Stone, however, was unshakeable. “Take care of it,” was all he’d said, but Reuben knew damned good and well exactly what that meant. The problem was, he couldn’t – at least not at the moment and not in his present location. Stone had still not returned to town though Washburn knew she had survived the attack by Hobbs’ gang.

Worse – Reuben had no way to leave without losing the Army position he needed and there was no way he would be able to force the issue within the town limits. Despite the many folks who found Reb Stone to be peculiar, most of them had benefited from her talents if not her generosity at one time or another and none had a bad word to say against her.

Still, he’d heard rumors – nothing solid… no way to confirm anything… not even a way to verify the source – but if they were anything close to the truth, he should be able to turn public opinion against her. This town might not be a God-fearing bastion, but it didn’t take perversion lightly either.

He could only hope to get that lucky. Mordecai was not going to wait very long before he stepped in and took care of things his own way. And then all hell would break loose.

************

Marshal Stephen Murphy had a standing date with Miss Kitty on Wednesday afternoons. Sometimes they shared a meal and talked and other times, they shared themselves. No matter how they chose to spend their time together, Wednesday afternoons between two and five were sacrosanct – respected by all and sundry – and only the most horrible circumstances would cause one or the other of them to miss that appointment or anyone else to interrupt.

On the other hand, they didn’t see one another much outside of that timeframe either, unless it was official business of the kind Murphy dealt with in his line of work. So it nearly shocked the whole town speechless when Kitty put on her nice clothes and sauntered down to the Marshal’s office on a Friday afternoon.

Murphy’s eyes nearly bugged out of his head when Kitty crossed the threshold. He rose from his seat automatically and motioned her to a chair. He waited until she was seated, then resumed his own place behind the desk.

“Well, Miss Kitty, this is an unexpectedly pleasant surprise. What, um… what can I do for you?”

“You can put my mind at rest, Marshal.” She crossed her legs and cleared her throat. “I am hearing some rumors and I’m not sure what to make of them.”

“What are you hearing, Kitty?” he asked glowering in her direction. “It’s gotta be bad if you came out in the middle of the day to see me.”

Kitty bit her lip, careful not to remove the color she had delicately painted on. “I’m not sure it’s bad yet, Stephen, but it is somewhat disturbing.”

“Kitty, what is it?” he asked again with more than a hint of exasperation.

“Well, rumor has it that Reb Stone is a horse thief – that she killed Leroy Washburn to keep from being discovered. But no one believes that – even the naysayers who would love to have something they could lord over her. She’s done too much good for folks around here for that idea to stick… though a lot of folks are wondering why she would even be accused of such a thing. I have to tell you, Stephen, I never have liked those Washburn boys. Always a little too slick, if you know what I mean.” He nodded but didn’t comment, and she continued speaking. “The rest… if it’s true I’m afraid it may be enough to turn the people here against her – hypocrites that they are.”

He cocked an eyebrow and folded his hands on his desktop. “What, Kitty?” having a sinking feeling he knew exactly where this conversation was headed.

She cleared her throat again, feeling awkward. “Well,” she drawled slowly, “I’ve heard that she’s taken a wife… an Injun wife.”

Murphy closed his eyes. He was going to have to kill Spencer – that was all there was to it. The man obviously had no sense, spreading stories like that. And if Stone ever got wind of it….

He sighed. “Between you and me, Kitty,” he said with a direct stare. Kitty nodded, understanding and accepting his condition of silence. He had shared many things with her over the years, and she had become his most treasured confidante. With her hard-earned business knowledge and the things Murphy had shared, Kitty Caldwell knew enough secrets to bring down the whole town and a good percentage of the Army.

“Always, Stephen… you know that.”

“All right,” he agreed, sighing again. “Stone does have a bride and she is an Injun… though not like any Injun I’ve ever seen before.” Kitty cocked her head and motioned for him to continue. “She’s a bitty thing, Kitty… tiny like a bird, but not weak. Her hair is a red-gold color… not dark like you’d expect, and her eyes are as green as new spring grass. And she’s as full of piss and vinegar as Stone is.”

“And you say she and Stone are married?”

“No… THEY say they’re married and I’m not gonna argue with ’em.”

“You sure that’s wise, Stephen? That sort of thing can turn ugly real quick. You know how judgmental some of the people in this town can be… especially about something like this. The only reason I’m not completely shunned is because I’ve got dirt on everyone and I’m willing to use it.”

Murphy shook his head. “Nothing to be done for it, Kitty, ‘less they don’t come into town. And I don’t see that as being a real option. Say whatever you like, them two women fit together. I’ve never seen anyone as fierce as that little one that belongs to Stone. She liked to have lit my hair on fire with a look when I intimated that they couldn’t be married to each other.”

“Worse than Stone Cold?”

He snorted. “Stone’s look is like ice – she was all fire.”

Kitty grinned despite the seriousness of the conversation. “Sounds like they’re perfect for each other.”

“Pretty much,” Murphy agreed. “Question is… aside from me killing the teller of this particular tale, is there anything we can be doin’ to make things easier for them when they come into town? Stone promised to give me a little while to see what I could dig up on the accusations Washburn was throwing her way, although that died down pretty quickly from that corner, come to think of it. And although I know her Missus wasn’t too anxious to visit, still, you know that Stone at least will be here eventually – whether it is for supplies or looking for more bounties to chase.”

“And you’re sure about this… about them, I mean?”

“As sure as I’ve ever been about anything, Kitty. My first reaction was a lot like yours, but you didn’t see them together. They belong.”

Kitty chewed on the end of her finger thoughtfully. “All righty, then… maybe we should speak to the reverend first. He will ultimately be the one with the power to swing the minds of the old biddies in this town one way or the other.”

“Can you convince him…?”

Kitty rose and Murphy stood as well. She extended her hand and he took it as a matter of course. She squeezed and waited for him to come around the desk, then she leaned forward and brushed his rough cheek with her painted lips, barely leaving a mark. “Leave it to me, Stephen. It may take a little while, but I think I can convince him to see things my way.”

“Thanks, Kitty.”

She shrugged. “Reb Stone is my friend – I don’t have many of those in this town. And she’s always looked out for me and the girls whenever she could. It’s kinda nice to be able to pay some of that back.”

“As I recall,” he said as he walked her to the door, “you were a good Samaritan to her when she first came to town as well.”

“Yeah, well… that was a long time ago and she’s racked up a lot of points with me and the girls since then.”

“Ya know, Kitty, if things were a little different….”

She cupped his cheek in her palm and brushed a thumb over his lips. “I know, but they’re not. Let’s just be thankful for what we’ve got,” leaning up and brushing his lips with hers briefly before pulling away and opening the door. “I’ll be in touch.”

“You do that,” he instructed. He watched her head back down towards the saloon and brothel. He noted all the eyes that followed her progress, seeing the speculation and interest in the ‘respectable’ women of the town. Then spotting Miss Molly Gillingham, Murphy decided to take a little stroll out towards the fort. With a little luck, he could resolve things with Spencer without having to actually kill the colonel for his indiscretion.

************

“Come in,” Spencer called out as Murphy knocked on the open door. The two men hadn’t spoken since their discussion about Reb Stone and Donoma. Part of that was due to the tacit agreement they’d made not to argue about Stone and Donoma; the other was a desire to give each other a little bit of space to cool down in.

But at the moment, Stephen Murphy was not worried about either of those things or the fact that he was risking years of friendship and good relations with the Army. At the moment, he had one single thought and that was to discover why Spencer had taken it upon himself to spread rumors about Stone and her mate. Despite the evidence that it was truth and not rumors, in Murphy’s mind it didn’t excuse the fact that Spencer had spoken out of turn.

So he stepped into Spencer’s office and closed the door behind him.

The colonel raised an eyebrow at the set fury in Murphy’s face, but motioned him to a seat. The marshal took a chair and leaned back, staring at Spencer for a long moment before opening his mouth to speak.

“Why’d you do it, Spence? Why couldn’t you just let things play out if and when Stone and her woman came into town?”

John Spencer jerked up from his place behind the desk and leaned over with his palms flat on the top. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Murphy, but I don’t like what you’re implying.”

Stephen Murphy stood opposite him and leaned against the other side of the desk until they were only inches apart. “I’m not implying, Spence. Are you gonna stand there and tell me that you didn’t tell anyone about Stone and her wife? ‘Cause rumors are flying all over the whole damn town, and I know I didn’t say a word to anyone!”

Spencer fell back into his chair with a graceless flop and gaped at Murphy. For his part, Murphy maintained his gaze, watching realization dawn on Spencer’s face. Only when the colonel’s mouth started working like a fish’s, opening and closing with no sound coming out, did the marshal take a seat and wait for him to recover his wits.

Finally, Spencer leaned forward and covered his face with his hands. Then he blew out a breath and dropped his hands, meeting Stephen’s gaze squarely.

“It is my fault, Murph, but there was nothing malicious or hateful behind it. I just did what you suggested.”

“Huh?” not brilliant, but the best Murphy could come up with under the circumstances.

“You told me to have Miss Molly talk to Stone’s bride… you know, if she thought being an Army wife was so bad.” Murphy nodded but didn’t speak and the colonel continued. “See, it’s like this… Miss Molly and I stepped out together last night. And we talked about marriage and how good I thought we could be together… you know, as husband and wife. And she told me that being an Army wife scared her, so I did what you suggested and mentioned that Stone had a wife she should talk to if she thought being an Army wife was scary. Had to be worse married to a bounty hunter, right?”

“You didn’t,” flatter than a pancake.

“I did,” Spence retorted. “I didn’t even think about the consequences. Frankly I never thought Miss Molly was the malicious type. I never expected her to be telling tales out of school.” He shrugged. “It just goes to show you can never really tell about people. She’s really not Army wife material if she isn’t more discriminating on what news she shares and with whom.”

Murphy kept his mouth shut. He’d learned from experience that women were women regardless, and just like most men he knew, if there was a juicy tidbit of gossip to share, they were damn sure going to share it with anyone and everyone who would listen.

Spencer sighed. “Not much to be done for it now, I suppose. I kind of hate that – Stone is good people. I hate to lose her friendship over something like this.”

“Why do you have to?” At the colonel’s cocked brow, he continued. “Why do you have to lose her friendship? Why not stand up and show folks that nothing has changed as far as you’re concerned?”

“Excuse me? Murph… what do you mean, nothing has changed? Everything has changed!”

“Has it? Or is something that has always been private suddenly been made public?” The question stopped John Spencer in his tracks and he turned his gaze inward and gave it the deliberation it was due. Eventually, he looked back at Stephen Murphy who was waiting patiently for him to draw his own conclusions.

“Son of a bitch.” Murphy’s eyebrows went up, but he remained silent. “Son of a bitch,” Spencer repeated. “You’re right. Fact is,
I never knew that much about Stone in the first place… at least not her private life. I never saw her with anyone, not even the girls at the saloon, except when she was having dinner with them. And I think she did that mostly to keep the more rowdy type men in line. All I really know of her is what I know dealing with her as a bounty hunter, and I can’t fault the type of business woman she is. She’s always been fair, forthright and honest in her dealings.”

“And she always gets her man.”

“Lucky for us.”

“So…?”

“So I guess I will be out to greet her when she or they come into town. Don’t know as I can do much more than that, but I’m not going to let the best bounty hunter in the territory disappear because I don’t agree with her mating choice.”

“Just you remember that her mate is a fierce woman in her own right, Spence. Woman nearly singed me bald with a look when I told her they couldn’t be married.”

Spencer chuckled. “That would have been quite the sight to see.”

Murphy snorted. “Only ’cause you are the one what would have been bald.”

The colonel raked a hand through his still thick hair. “I don’t think I would be as appealing to Miss Molly as a bald man, at any rate.” A troubled look crossed his face and Murphy stepped out of character for a moment and did something unusual for him.

“Whatcha gonna do about her, John?”

John shook his head. “I don’t rightly know,” he replied honestly. “I really do like her, Stephen, you know? I think she would make a good wife – she is obviously sturdy stock if she has survived out here; she comes from good people; she has nice manners and I think she would bear strong children.”

“But…?”

“But can I marry someone who can’t hold her tongue… or at least know when to speak and when to be silent? Do I really want to? I care for her very much; I just… I need to decide if I can live without her or not, and if not, how willing am I to teach her to be a proper Army wife?”

“Wouldn’t the other wives help her adjust? I thought that was what women did… you know, sorta stick together.”

Spencer laughed and rose from his seat, coming around the desk to clap Murphy on the shoulder. “That kind of thinking is probably why you and I are confirmed old bachelors at this point in our lives, Stephen. I have found that sometimes women come together in camaraderie and join forces against a common enemy and sometimes they will ostracize one another because they can. I long ago stopped trying to make sense of either their thinking processes or their machinations. It made my head hurt too much. I do know that *if* I ever decided to marry, my wife would be expected to be a leader among the wives and women here as much as I am a leader among the men. That is the way of the Army. And I am not sure Miss Molly is up to that challenge.”

“Well, I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Meantime, I need to talk to Kitty… see what the good reverend has to say about it all. If he’s on our side, I figure the old biddies will fall in line.” He noticed Spencer’s speculative look. “She’s the one who came to me with the rumors, Spence.”

“Figures,” the colonel grunted. “If there is news in this town, real or imagined, Miss Kitty is going to be the first one to hear about it. That woman is better than a newspaper or a town crier for news, and she’s discrete. Of course, in her line of work….” not saying any more to keep from offending Murphy. He knew how the marshal felt about Kitty.

Murphy offered him a slightly pained smile. “Maybe she should be the one to teach Miss Molly about discretion.”

John laughed. “I’d almost pay to see that.”

Stephen’s laughter joined in. “So would I, actually.” The two men shook hands and Spencer opened the door for Murphy to leave. “Come around for dinner tomorrow, and I’ll let you know what Hawkins had to say. Maybe we can head things off at the pass.”

“I’ll be there.” Then the two men went back to work, wondering what the morrow would bring.
Chapter XXXII
Miss Kitty moseyed back to the saloon. She knew talking to Reverend Hawkins was going to require a little finesse. Still, he was a man and not without secrets, though if she could manage it, she’d prefer not to have to threaten him with exposure. He was much better as a willing ally than an antagonistic one and Kitty was determined to bring him around to her way of thinking. First, though, she needed sustenance. Then she could strategize her battle plan.

She walked in the door and greeted Benny the bartender with a wave. He nodded his head and signaled one of the other girls to fetch Kitty a plate. For her part, Kitty headed upstairs to remove her ‘going out’ clothes. Even if she had to put them on again later to talk to the reverend, it was better than wrinkling them or staining them in the meantime.

Kitty unbuttoned her shoes, kicking them off with an almost decadent sense of liberation. Then she reached behind her to start unbuttoning her dress, only to be stopped by the knock on the door. With a sigh of relief, she opened the door and ushered Ginger into the room, taking the tray from her hands and turning her back.

Ginger understood the unspoken directive, unhooking buttons quickly and patting Kitty’s back when she was finished. Kitty turned and brushed their lips together lightly, then slipped out of her dress and into her comfortable robe.

“God, that’s much better,” she said, stretching comfortably before moving over to the tray she’d set down on her bed. “Thanks, by the way… I’m starving.”

Ginger smiled. “Thank Benny. He’s the one who let us know you were ready for it.”

“Good man… remind me to thank him later.” She looked up at Ginger. “How’d you get drafted to bring it upstairs?”

Ginger’s smile became a grin. “I volunteered.”

Kitty smirked. “Of course you did.”

Ginger was good, letting Kitty satisfy the first pangs of hunger before she started talking. “So what’s the word?” Kitty met her gaze blankly. “C’mon, Kitty – you went down to talk to the Marshal as soon I told you about the rumors goin’ around town. Are you gonna sit there and pretend that didn’t have anything to do with your impromptu visit to see Stephen Murphy?”

“I can’t, Ginger. I promised Stephen to keep his counsel on this. But I can tell you he was mightily displeased to hear about these rumors floatin’ about.”

“I’d say that was the truth for the majority of the town from the sound of things no matter which side of the fence you fall on. Do you realize Reb’s supposed marriage to an Injun woman has pushed the talk of her being a horse thief right off the map? Not that anyone here believed that foolishness – even the old biddies knew better than to say a word against her in that regard.” She turned and leaned up against the door. Kitty arched an eyebrow at her.

“Have you heard anything else?”

“Nothing I didn’t already tell ya; the telling seems to get worse with each round it makes though. ‘Fore ya know it, Reb’s gonna have a harem and fangs.” The two women snorted and Kitty almost choked on her laughter.

“Thanks for that imagery, Ging,” Kitty said wryly when she could speak again. “I’m gonna be hard-pressed to keep a straight face next time I see Reb and God knows I can’t afford to be seen laughin’ at her. Folks’ll take that all wrong.”

“Well, people do seem to be fallin’ into two distinct camps from what I’ve been able to figure out already. Most of the shopkeepers, the single men, the cowboys and the like don’t give a rat’s ass. They figure it’s none of their business. The old biddies though….”

“So it’s a case of men on one side, women on the other.”

“Pretty much, except for the reverend who is sticking with the old women and us, who come down firmly with the men.”

Kitty chortled. “Don’t we always?” Ginger howled with laughter and it was a few minutes before either of them could speak sensibly again. “Now,” Kitty said, popping the last bite of cornbread into her mouth and brushing the crumbs from her hands,
“I need to figure out the best way to get the good reverend to see things our way… preferably without using blackmail.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why preferably without blackmail? Damn, Kitty – what’s the point of *knowing* all the secrets if you never *use* them?”

“I’d prefer to have him on our side as an ally, Ginger. No one wants a war over this. There’s a lot hidden behind the walls and doors of this town. That kind of stuff starts spilling out, there’s liable to be an explosion of massive proportion.”

“You think it could come to that?”

“I think Washburn will use any opportunity he can to stir shit against Reb.” She sighed. “I still don’t understand why they didn’t cotton to her at all. She’s doing the Army a huge favor being such a successful bounty hunter – lessens their responsibilities in the territory by the wagonload. Why’d the Washburn boys have such a stick up their ass where she is concerned? As far as I could tell, she stayed well away from them, didn’t she?”

Ginger nodded slowly. “Yeah, though that might’ve been the problem. She’s a woman working in a man’s world, meeting a man’s terms and to top it all off, she shunned them as men. Now in fairness, she did that with all the men that wanted her as a woman.” She shrugged. “Maybe that bothered them the most.” She took a seat next to Kitty. “I dunno, Kit… the whole thing just gives me a really bad feeling.”

“Yeah, me too,” Kitty agreed. “Nothing good can come from this.” She rubbed her forehead, careful not to smudge the makeup she had so painstakingly applied earlier. “It’s already giving me a headache.”

Ginger rose from her place beside Kitty and removed the tray from the bed before returning and propping her body against the pillows at the headboard. Then she patted the space between her scissored legs, motioning for Kitty to sit between them with her back to Ginger’s chest. Then Kitty’s chin dropped to her chest as Ginger began a firm kneading on the knots in her neck.

“Christ Ginger, you have magic hands.”

“And a magic tongue depending on who you ask,” Ginger replied saucily, causing Kitty to jerk with laughter. She kept up the pressure, forcing the knots to loosen under her touch one by one.

“God that feels so good, but you’re putting me to sleep.”

“Go with it, Kitty – you need the rest if you’re going to be ready for Mason and his boys tonight. This stress isn’t good for ya, you know.” Kitty snorted, but she didn’t speak. Ginger slipped from her spot behind Kitty, then encouraged her to cuddle down into the soft bed. “G’wan, me and the girls will handle any business that comes in for a while. I’ll come gitcha before Mason gets here.”

Kitty might have answered except for the soft snoring that issued from between her lips. Ginger pulled the blanket up to her waist, then snagged the tray and tiptoed from the room.

************

Saturday morning, Kitty got up early – a huge sacrifice given the lateness of the hour she’d been up working the night before. She smiled, then grimaced. She appreciated the business, but God, she was beat. It was nothing another few hours of sleep wouldn’t cure, but she needed to talk to Reverend Hawkins first and unfortunately, that meant early morning hours. On Saturdays, Mrs. Hawkins held a prayer meeting with the respectable Christian women of the town while the good reverend went to the schoolhouse to convert it into a church meetinghouse. Then he would rehearse his sermon until the women were out of his house.

So muttering under her breath at the things she did for friendship, Kitty struggled out of bed. She scrubbed her face and carefully reapplied her make-up, then slid into her going out clothes for the second day in a row.

It was dark and quiet downstairs – no one would be stirring in the saloon until close to lunch time. With any luck, Kitty would conclude her business with the good reverend quickly enough to take advantage of the relative silence for a few more hours of peace.

The shops were opened; most of the storekeepers gave her a nod of greeting though not much more. Kitty didn’t mind – she more than most understood the importance of appearances. She got their money and attention sooner or later if not their public respect.

When she reached the far end of the street, she crossed and mounted the steps slowly.

“And the Lord said, ‘I shall smite…’ Miss Kitty?”

Kitty’s lips twisted wryly at the irony of the words that welcomed her appearance into the church. Daniel Hawkins kept the smile from his lips but didn’t contain the twinkle in his eyes. She offered her hand and he accepted it, squeezing briefly before releasing it. Then he motioned her to a bench and took a seat across the aisle.

“What brings you to see me, Kitty?”

“I think you can probably guess, Daniel.”

He sighed and rubbed a hand across his eyes. “Kitty….”

“Daniel, are you gonna sit there and tell me you agree with the old biddies of this town? That Reb Stone needs to be shunned because of who she chooses to spend her time with? The same Reb Stone that has done more than her share to help keep this a decent place to live?”

“The Bible says….”

“The Bible says ‘judge not that ye be not judged’; ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’.” She laughed aloud at his flabbergasted expression. “C’mon, Daniel. I haven’t always been a whore. I spent a goodly portion of my Sundays growing up listening to a hellfire and brimstone preacher. I’m not interested in what you think the Bible says. I’m interested in what you, Daniel Hawkins, say. And before you answer that,” she said holding up a hand when he drew breath to speak, “I mean you the man… not the preacher and not the husband.”

He sighed again, this time scrubbing both hands over his face, then allowing them to rest on his lips while he contemplated her in silence. “If it was left up to me, I’d tell them to stay well away from this town, Kitty. Different don’t do well here – you know that. Look at how long it took Stone to make a place for herself as a woman bounty hunter. Now for her to bring in an Injun woman – that’s bad enough, but to call her mate??”

“Daniel, I’m not asking for an explanation. I’m asking what side you come down on.”

“As a man, I don’t rightly care. Reb Stone has been a contributing member of this town and I value that. But as a preacher, I have to condemn her actions. She flaunts her differences and that’s just not right. It goes against the Good Book.”

Kitty sneered. “It goes against Eunice’s desire for a polite society in this town, Daniel… just like I do. Imagine if she knew the truth about you.”

His face flushed red and his eyes popped from their sockets. She held up her hands.

“Breathe, Daniel. I’m not going to tell her – at least not now. But imagine if she did know. The only real difference is Reb’s not hiding her secret.” Kitty rose and smoothed out her skirt. “Maybe one day you’ll be able to be that man you always wanted to.”

Without another word, Kitty turned and headed back out towards the saloon. With a little luck, she’d be able to get back to bed with no more interruptions in her sleep.

************

Koko lay still, her eyes focused on the warm body of her mate. Donoma was curled up into the warrior’s body, holding on so tightly she wondered what haunted the seer’s dreams. For her part, Koko trailed her hands up and down Donoma’s bare skin, anywhere she could reach – arms, back, belly. Slowly, her touch roused Donoma towards wakefulness and Koko smiled as Donoma mewed her protest at being awakened, no matter how gently.

Koko rolled them so Donoma was tucked beneath her and her eyes were focused on Donoma’s, wanting to see green eyes. It took a few minutes, but eventually her patience was rewarded and sleepy green eyes slowly blinked open. Donoma smiled up into the blue eyes full of love gazing back at her, then laced her hands into the dark hair, tugging until Koko’s lips were a mere whisper away from her own.

“Good morning,” she said softly.

“Good morning, ka’eskone,” dropping her head and capturing the full lips beneath her for a timeless moment. “How did you sleep?” she asked when they separated.

Donoma grinned and rubbed Koko’s nose with hers. “I was in your arms, warrior; my sleep is always good there.” Koko traced the planes of Donoma’s face with her fingertips, studying the depths of her eyes for any suggestion of what had caused her to hold on so fiercely in her sleep. Not finding anything, she kissed Donoma’s nose and pulled back slightly.

“As is mine, ka’eskone.” She rolled onto her back, smiling when Donoma followed and tucked her head under Koko’s chin. They lay that way for a few minutes, then Koko tilted her head enough to kiss the blonde head. “Do you still want to try to go into town today, Donoma? I think it may be dry enough for us to make it in without too much difficulty.”

“I go where you go, warrior.”

Koko shifted. “Have you decided otherwise, beloved? We do not need to go if you are not ready.”

“I think we need to get this behind us, warrior mine. It is not going to get easier by waiting.”

Koko nodded her head. That much was the truth. She knew that as well as anyone and better than most – had it not been for necessity, she herself would never have ventured into town the second time. She was not particularly looking forward to introducing Donoma to the white man’s world, remembering her own experiences, but until her business with Stephen and the Army was complete, there was no way she was going to leave Donoma alone. Something about the very idea sent squiggles traveling up and down her spine in painful patterns.

“Very well,” Koko agreed. She squeezed Donoma once more, then released her hold. “We should get started. It will take most of the morning to get there.”

“Do we have time for breakfast?” Donoma asked as her belly growled. Koko chuckled.

“Absolutely, ka’eskone. Never let it be said I let you starve.”

“You nearly did once – do you remember?” Donoma asked seriously, though the twinkle in her eyes belied the gravity of her tone.

“I never…!” Koko replied aghast.

“Oh, but you did, warrior. Do you not recall my defensive training? Part of that was survival – you offered me roasted scorpion and rattlesnake blood!!”

“I found more palatable alternatives!” Koko whined in her defense, reminding Donoma of the cactus that had served as both food and drink.

“Yes, but only because I turned the color of my eyes if I recall correctly, warrior. For a time there, I was convinced you wanted me to fail.” Donoma’s face was teasing; Koko’s countenance grew grave, not a hint of humor in her expression or manner.

“Not once did I ever desire your failure, ka’eskone.”

“Oh, Koko… I know that now. I realized it later when I heard about warrior survival training – you did not spend extra time looking for things they would eat. They were expected to eat what they found or go hungry.” She took Koko’s face in her hands. “You never failed in your duty to look out for me, Koko Kanti, and I can appreciate those efforts very differently as an adult and your mate than I ever could as a child.” She laughed softly and shook her head.

“What?”

“It is so clear to me now. Why was it so hard to see before?” She looked into wide blue eyes. “Everyone knew, Koko… everyone saw. Everyone but me. What could have been so important to the Great Spirit that we needed to be separated for five cycles?”

Koko caught Donoma’s hands in hers and kissed the knuckles. “Ka’eskone, I am not sure the Great Spirit had anything to do with it. Sometimes, it is just us and our decisions and their consequences. But….” stopping Donoma’s protestations before they could begin, “it will be something you can ask one day in the very distant future when we go together to meet our fathers and mothers. However, you are going to have to let it go for now, ka’eskone. What’s done is past – there is nothing we can do to change it. We can only live today for the precious gift that it is.”

Donoma brought their joined hands to her lips, placing her own kiss over them. “When did you get to be so smart, warrior?”

“I could not help but be, Donoma Chepi. I have the smartest advisor in all the land. I could not have her think me an idiot now, could I?”

“Keep reminding me of today, warrior mine. I am tired of living in the past and finding only pain and loneliness in the present while seeing nothing but darkness in my future. I want to remember the past, but I want to live in the future and look towards the future with you.”

Koko smiled. “You will… I will be right here to remind you until you remember.”

“Good thing you love me so much.”

“I never stopped.” Then her declaration was interrupted by the loud rumble from two stomachs this time. “I suppose that is a sign we have had enough sentiment for the moment. We should take care of this and get started to town. The sooner we take care of our business there, the sooner we can come home again.”

Donoma frowned. “Is there something about this that concerns you about this journey, warrior?”

“Several somethings, in fact, but they will not change or disappear if we delay. I need to speak with Stephen at any rate. I want to know what he has discovered about Washburn’s accusations against me. The whole situation is difficult and strange.”

“We will work it out, Koko… together.”

“That is all I need, ka’eskone. Everything will figure itself out as long as we are together. Now come – it is time to introduce you to Miss Kitty and her bathtub with hot water.” Donoma grinned and they went to into the kitchen to get some breakfast so they could get on their way.
Chapter XXXIII
Just as Koko had warned her, the town was noisy to the point of being painful. But even as that thought crossed Donoma’s mind, the cacophony slowly fell into silence as their presence attracted attention and people stopped to stare. Koko reached over a reassuring hand, clasping Donoma’s and squeezing. Donoma met Koko’s eyes and smiled.

They rode without stopping until they reached the saloon. Koko dismounted and tied off both horses before turning to Donoma and helping her from Dapples. Then she took Donoma’s hand again and they went inside without a backwards glance.

Benny whooped and called to the girls upstairs before coming around the bar. “Hey, Reb… long time, no see. Kitty, girls… git on down here and see who’s come a-callin’.”

At his first call girls started appearing over the banister railing, sticking their heads out the doors of their rooms to find out what the commotion was about. As soon as they recognized Reb, they gave their own cheer and swooped down the stairs en masse, swarming around the two women waiting there.

Kitty whistled above the melee, bringing the racket to an instant halt. All eyes turned in her direction and the girls split to create a pathway for Kitty to traverse. She did so slowly, looking for all the world like a panther stalking its prey. She held Reb’s eyes for a long moment, then cupped the warrior’s face in her hands before leaning forward to kiss her – only to find sparking green eye glaring at her from a very close distance.

“Mine,” Donoma growled fiercely, stepping forward into Kitty’s personal space and forcing the other woman to take a step back just to keep her balance. Koko hadn’t even realized Donoma had moved until Kitty’s brown eyes met hers in amusement. She smiled and wrapped her arms around Donoma’s middle, pulling the smaller woman’s body against her own.

“Always yours, ka’eskone. This is Kitty,” motioning to the dark-haired woman who watched them in fascination. “My friend.” She looked at Kitty. “Kitty, this is my mate, Donoma Chepi.”

Kitty stepped back a bit and extended her hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Donoma Chepi. You and your mate are welcome here.”

Donoma studied Kitty’s brown eyes intently for a moment, then accepted her hand in a gentle grip. “Thank you, Kitty… nice to meet you too,” she replied slowly, wanting to get the words right. Kitty held her hand lightly and turned to face the girls waiting patiently behind her.

“Donoma, these are my girls,” introducing them one by one and saving Ginger for the last. “Ginger is my go-to girl. And this strapping man is Benny, our barkeep. He’s a decent sort, which is saying a lot in this town.”

“Problem?” Koko asked, having stayed at Donoma’s side the entire time Kitty had been introducing her to the girls in the saloon. Kitty shook her head.

“Nothing we have to talk about before lunch, Reb. And speaking of….” Kitty released Donoma’s hand and went to the window, turning around the handmade sign that proclaimed them open for business. “I imagine the cowboys have been waiting for that, but I expect it’ll get us a lot more business in here today,” with a significant look in Koko’s direction.

Koko and Donoma exchanged glances, then Reb acknowledged the remainder of the girls, though their greetings were far more restrained than was normal. No one wanted to upset Donoma further and it had been made painfully apparent that she and Reb Stone were bound to one another on a fairly deep level – certainly deeper than could be expected given Reb’s reputation as a solitary figure. Surely the few weeks she’d been gone from them were not long enough to cultivate that sort of bond. Kitty decided to ask and motioned them towards the table Reb always took when she was there.

Reb took the corner against the wall where she could observe the entire room. Though it was empty save for them at the moment, she knew that would change and wanted to be prepared for any eventuality. Donoma sat next to her and the rest started filling in around the table – all except for Benny. He went back behind the bar knowing Kitty would give him the whole story later and needing to be ready for the customers he knew would be coming in.

A word from Kitty caused Ginger to grab a couple of the other girls and head into the kitchen. After only a moment, they returned with their arms full, followed by the roundest, darkest woman Donoma had ever seen. Donoma just stared. She didn’t mean to, of course, but she couldn’t seem to stop – the whites of the woman’s eyes and teeth practically glowed against her dark skin. Koko rose and was engulfed in an embrace before she or Donoma could react and was released just as quickly.

“How you be, Reb Stone? I been hearin’ ’bout you taking a wife – she wouldn’t be this pretty little thing here now, would she?” taking Donoma’s hand and tugging her from her seat. “C’mon and give Big Mama a hug, darlin’. Your Reb’s ’bout the best friend mosta us womenfolk gots in this here town.”

“Good friend to Donoma Chepi as well,” Donoma said with a smile. Big Mama chuckled.

“I jus’ bet, little one.” Then she turned and headed back to the kitchen, still laughing. Donoma looked bemusedly at Koko who just laughed and shook her head.

“Do not question it, ka’eskone. Big Mama is a law unto herself, much like Kitty.” The women around the table exchanged glances when the foreign tongue slipped easily from Reb’s mouth. It hinted at an even deeper mystery than Donoma herself was. Kitty decided to take things in hand.

“So, Donoma,” waiting until green eyes tracked to her brown ones. “Tell us how you and Reb met.”

“Koko and I know each other long time – met as children.”

Kitty’s eyes widened comically. “Wait just a damn minute,” she interrupted. “You mean to tell me the two of you are childhood sweethearts?!” She turned and glared at Koko. “Why are we just now hearin’ about this, Reb?” Kitty smiled sweetly at Donoma. “So tell me about this romance.”

“Kitty….”

“Aw c’mon, Reb. You’ve lived here off and on for five years and not once do we hear a word about anyone in your life then suddenly you turn up with a wife and we’re not even supposed to be a little curious?” Ginger cut in before Kitty could answer.

“All you need to know for now is that Donoma and I grew up together and just recently found one another again. Being married is new for us.”

Kitty grinned broadly. “Well, I have to say it suits you both perfectly, but I want to hear more about it later. For now, it looks like word of your arrival in town had made the rounds. An audience is gathering in your honor.” Her smile turned to a grimace. “We’re not the only ones who are curious.”

Stephen Murphy was the first in the door and he walked over to greet both Koko and Donoma as long lost friends. Donoma looked her confusion at Koko, but the warrior didn’t say anything – blue eyes merely promised an explanation later.

Next came Colonel John Spencer. He shook Reb’s hand and did the same to Donoma, albeit far more gently. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Stone. We need to talk,” he said addressing Koko. “Not about this… about the other matter. But it will wait until after lunch. May we join you?” he asked politely. Most of the girls had gotten up as soon as patrons started coming in the doors. Only Kitty and Ginger remained.

Koko looked at Donoma who held her gaze for a long moment before nodding. Koko took her hand and Donoma grasped it tightly, though no one watching them could have told that from the expression on either face. Koko turned back to Murphy and Spencer.

“Please,” motioning them to a chair.

They took their seats and an awkward silence fell. Donoma stared at the Blue Coat – she had never been this close to one before. She only knew of them because the warriors of the tribe spoke of them with great disdain. More than wild animals, more than starvation or disease, more than any other affliction the People suffered from, the Blue Coat was the most feared… the most hated. And yet here sat one at the table with then, eating lunch as though he was just like everyone else Donoma knew and not the monster she had always been told that Blue Coats were.

“Mrs. Stone, I understand you’re an Injun, but you don’t look anything like any Injun I’ve ever seen. Why is that?”

Donoma understood that his words were an insult, but it was Koko who reacted without a pause. Her blue eyes blazed fury and she slammed her hands on the table; only Donoma’s free hand on her leg offered her a sense of calm. She met Donoma’s eyes and then took a deep breath. “Colonel Spencer, I’m sure you meant no disrespect to Donoma Chepi, but I’m only gonna tell you once to watch your tone. She’s done nothing to earn your derision. Try to remember that.”

Spencer had the good grace to look abashed at her words and faced Donoma with a red face. “My apologies, Mrs. Stone. I didn’t intend to be rude – I’m just curious.”

“People found… took in when still baby. Made family. I ask you question?” At his nod, she continued. “Why Blue Coat?”

Spencer was taken aback, not having expected such forthrightness. He looked at her thoughtfully for a long moment. “Tradition,” he answered finally. “It’s all I know… all the men in my family have done for generations.”

“Glad not your family then,” Donoma stated bluntly. “Blue Coats cause much trouble for People.”

Before Spencer could ask for a definition, Reuben Washburn’s voice rang out from the street. “Stone!!”

As one body the entire table rose and went to the door, Reb in the lead. She looked out to find him staring at her as though she was the Devil Incarnate, and she hiked an eyebrow at him in question.

“Something I can do for you, Washburn?” She stepped out of the saloon, followed closely by Donoma who clutched her hand like a lifeline. He sneered derisively at her.

“Yes, you thieving, murdering son of a whore – think you’re so tough you marry a woman to prove your manhood. I’m calling you out, Stone. You wanna be a man so bad – time to take it and die like one.”

Spencer stepped forward then, only to find an arm held by Murphy and his chest stopped by Reb’s upraised hand. “Stone, this is an Army matter….”

“No, Spencer… this is personal. He brought the fight to me; now I’m gonna finish it.” She turned to Donoma and spoke in the language of the People. “I have to do this, ka’eskone. He will haunt us for the rest of our lives if I do not. He is just that type – cannot accept that he is wrong and cannot let go of an idea whether it is a mistake or not.”

“You will take care of this and come back to me?”

“Oh yes, beloved. I could have beaten him even before we were joined. Now I have every reason to do so – we have a life to live together.”

Donoma cupped Koko’s face in her hands. “Do what needs to be done, warrior. I will be here waiting.”

“Stone!!! You coming? Or do I need to shoot you where you stand and take your whore.” He grinned sickly, and Koko wondered if he was drunk. “That’s not a bad idea,” he mused, reaching for his weapon. It took him ten full seconds to realize that the gunshot he heard hadn’t come from his still holstered pistol. Instead it was blossoming across his chest in a wash of red blood. He looked down stupidly for a moment before looking back up to meet her deadly glare. “Son of a bitch – that hurts!” he mumbled before his mind understood he was dead and buckled his legs out from under him.

There was silence for a moment, then Reb re-holstered her gun and looked at Donoma. She saw no horror… no disgust… no triumph or satisfaction. She only saw love reflected back at her out of those bright green eyes and she accepted the gift that it was with a small smile and open arms, gratified when Donoma didn’t even hesitate.

After a moment, Stephen Murphy cleared his throat awkwardly. “Well, that was unorthodox, but certainly effective.” Koko and Donoma separated just slightly and looked at him, but before he could elaborate, John Spencer spoke.

“You know there will need to be an inquiry,” the colonel stated as they watched Washburn’s body being removed from the street.

“Into what, Spence? He challenged Reb in front of a town full of witnesses and he drew first on her… or tried to at any rate. What part of that needs an inquiry?”

“It’s a formality, Murphy. Like him or not, Reuben Washburn was an officer in the United States Army. His death has to be documented.” He paused. “We did the same for Leroy.”

“You can document his death without an inquiry. There are plenty of folks standing right here who will be more than willing to give testimony to the fact that Reuben Washburn’s death was his own fault and by his own choice.”

Spencer looked around, seeing shopkeepers in every door way up and down Main Street. Kitty’s girls were standing along the sidewalk in front of the saloon and even the old biddies were poking their noses out from behind the curtains of their respectable residences. He nodded his head.

“All right… you’ve got a point. Though I doubt anything will satisfy Mordecai Washburn. He’s one mean son of a bitch… begging your pardon, ma’am,” with a bow in Donoma’s direction. “I guess this settles the matter of the horse thieving as well. I never did buy into it, but he was adamant in his accusations against you, Stone.”

“Why?”

“Huh? Why what?”

“Why was he so insistent that I was a horse thief? What was his brother doing that I was accused of committing such a crime? There has to be a reason behind it.”

“I don’t… I never really thought about it – never gave it any serious consideration.”

“Again… why?” Koko looked at him, holding Donoma firmly next to her. “I understand you not taking the charges seriously, and I appreciate that… believe me. But that doesn’t explain why you didn’t look into it, Spence.”

Spencer frowned. “Why would I, Reb? The charge was unfounded.”

Koko sighed and rolled her eyes, trying to make the man see what she was getting at. Then Donoma spoke. “Why man tell lies?”

The colonel opened his mouth and then stopped as he thought about what Donoma had just asked. “That’s a good question,” he finally admitted. “Why did he make up something like that? He had to know without proof that I would take your word over his.”

“Not necessarily,” Murphy spoke up. “After all, he was an officer in the Army and Reb, no matter her reputation is still a woman doing what is generally considered to be a man’s job. Still, it bears some looking into.” He turned to Koko. “I’ll see what I can find out, though there has been precious little evidence to show much of anything so far. Them boys what went out with Leroy ain’t saying much.”

“You think they know something?”

“I know they do,” Ginger spoke up suddenly. All eyes swung in her direction. “What?” she asked plaintively. “They do. Some of those soldier boys like to talk and some of them talk in their sleep.” She took an automatic step backwards when they began to crowd closer to her.

“What do you know?” Murphy asked. Ginger raised her hands.

“Back up… you’re crowding me and I don’t like it.” Fire sparked out of her gray eyes and the red of her hair seemed to flame with her intensity. Kitty placed a gentle hand on Stephen’s arm and drew him back towards her, giving Ginger a bit of breathing space.

“C’mon, fellas – give a lady some room. I’m sure Ginger’ll share whatever she knows with all of you if you’ll just give her a chance. Now I have an idea… why don’t the three of you,” pointing to Spencer, Murphy and Stone, “go with Ginger and buy her a drink? I’m sure her story will be much easier to tell if she can relax a little bit.”

“Where are you going, Miss Kitty?” Murphy asked boldly. She arched a brow at him.

“Not that it’s actually your business at the moment, Stephen, but I thought Donoma and I could go have a little girl talk of our own. She can tell me her story… I can tell her some stories about Reb.” She grinned. “It’ll be fun.”

Donoma looked at Koko for advice; Koko held her hands lightly. “You might enjoy it, ka’eskone, but you do not have to if it would make you uncomfortable. I think you would like Kitty if you would take the opportunity to get to know her. It is your choice.”

Donoma looked between Kitty and Koko – finding mischief and mirth in the brown eyes and love and faith in the blue ones.

“Yes,” she said simply to Kitty’s request. Kitty smiled as though she’d been given a gold coin.

“Wonderful,” she returned enthusiastically. “Let’s go to the kitchen. Big Mama will serve us lemonade and we can have a little quiet and privacy to talk.” She waved her hands in Ginger’s direction. “These guys will be a while. We might as well enjoy ourselves.” And without further adieu the two women disappeared into the kitchen.

Koko watched them go, then acceded to the tugging on her arm that Stephen Murphy was steadily applying. “Reb, will you c’mon already? I wanna hear what Ginger has to say.”

“Yes,” Spencer agreed coming up on her other side. “It might go a ways towards giving us the answers to those questions we have about why.”

Koko shrugged her shoulders. “All right. I’m coming. I just hope she has something we can use. I want to know what Reuben Washburn thought he could prove.”

Murphy snorted. “I wanna know what really happened out there on the Plains. Oh… not the part with Donoma,” seeing the anger build in Koko’s eyes. “I believe she told us exactly what happened for the part she was involved in. But I wanna know what caused that to begin with. I’m wondering if maybe the Army is housing a den of horse thieves.”

“It sure would explain a lot… except why.”

“Well, us standing around here isn’t getting us any answers. Let’s go see what Miss Ginger has to say. Your wife’ll be fine with Miss Kitty and Big Mama… although your marriage may never be the same after they get done talking. You know how women get,” he teased as they made their way to the table where Ginger and Spencer were waiting.

Koko smirked at him. “Murph, I *am* a woman, remember? But Donoma has known me far longer than Kitty has. I don’t think Kitty could tell her anything she doesn’t already know about me.”

Ginger looked up as they took a seat. “Maybe not, but I bet Kitty had some new stories to tell the rest of us about you before the day is through,” she said with eyes twinkling as she lifted her glass. Koko just dropped her head face down onto the table.

“I am so doomed.”
Chapter XXXIV
“Donoma? May I call you Donoma or would you prefer Mrs. Stone?” Kitty asked after they had seated themselves and Big Mama had brought forth a plate of sugar cookies and two glasses of lemonade.

“Donoma good.” Kitty smiled and patted her hand.

“Donoma it is then; you can call me Kitty. Only the fellas usually call me Miss Kitty.” Donoma nodded her head and picked up a cookie at Big Mama’s insistence.

“Is good fo’ ya chile… eat up now. I cain’t let ya get up from mah table hungry.”

“Listen to her, Donoma. Big Mama looks out for all of us.” She waited until Donoma had bitten into the cookie, smiling at the delight that covered her face as the sweetness hit Donoma’s taste buds. “Now tell me how it is you speak and understand English so well. Did a missionary come to your tribe or…?” Kitty stopped talking when she noticed the furrowed look of concentration on Donoma’s face, then she slapped herself in the forehead. “I’m sorry, Donoma – I should have asked you where you learned to speak the white man’s language.”

“Rae’l,” she answered succinctly. “Koko’s Nahko’e… mother. She teach People read books… understand words. Learn much.”

“I’m glad she did, Donoma. I would’ve hated not to’ve had this chance to get to know you.”

“Why?”

Kitty blinked. Donoma was nothing if not forthright evidently. “Well,” she said slowly, considering her words, “you’re a new friend to make for one thing. Those don’t come along around here everyday. And you’re Reb Stone’s new mate. That makes you even more interesting. You see,” she added, pausing for a sip of lemonade, “we don’t know very much about Reb – only what little she’s seen fit to share. It’d be nice to learn a little bit more about her too.”

“Like what?”

Kitty pinched her lips thoughtfully before speaking. “You said you were children together,” waiting for Donoma to nod. “What was she like… growing up?”

“Koko strong warrior and Donoma’s friend.”

Kitty waited but nothing more was forthcoming. Finally she tilted her head in question. “Is that all? Surely there is more you can tell us,” noting that Big Mama was paying close attention to the conversation even as she stayed busy in the kitchen.

“Not understand what you want to know,” Donoma offered, her confusion evident.

Kitty thought a moment. “All righty – how ’bout this? I’ll tell you something about the Reb Stone I know, then you can tell me something about… what do you call her?”

“Koko Kanti.”

Kitty nodded. “You can tell me something about Koko Kanti. I’ll start.” She paused a moment as she went back in her mind to her first meeting with Reb Stone. “When Reb came to town, she was dressed in buckskin and it drew all sorts of attention to her. She looked so lost… so heartbroken, but only if you looked into her eyes. On the surface, she was completely unemotional, and that caused the men in this town to underestimate her.

Oh, Donoma… I wish you could have been here. They thought they could mock her and poke fun….” Kitty chuckled. “I have never seen anything so fierce. She took on all comers. But it wasn’t without price and when it was over, she came here… to my place. Big Mama and I nursed her back to health and soon she was lookin’ out for all my girls. The first time some cowboy raised a hand to Ginger, Reb broke his arm. The fellas learned right quick to mind their manners – it was a nice change from the roughhousin’ we’d had to put up with before she came here.”

“Koko Kanti always protector,” Donoma stated bluntly. “From time she join People.”

“Folks ’round here learned that lesson pretty quick,” Kitty said with a smile, pleased when it was returned.

“Warriors learned quick too,” Donoma confided. “Koko beat all.”

“I’ll bet she did,” Kitty agreed with a laugh. “I saw her take on grown men twice her size. She made herself quite a reputation. That’s how she ended up with that horse of hers, ya know.” Donoma’s eyes widened and she shook her head. “She didn’t tell you that story?” Donoma shook her head again and even Big Mama laughed this time. Kitty shook her head in disbelief. “Figures, ’cause it’s something of a tale to be tellin’ for sure.

I guess Reb had been here ’bout a week by then and she’d healed up right nice from her fightin’. The men of the town were a bit more respectful towards her and the ‘respectable’ women just stayed away. They still don’t know what to make of her.”

“Why make? Why not accept?”

“Oh honey, if I knew the answer to that question, the world would be a different place. It’d sure as hell make a lot more sense. However, I’m not concerned ’bout people like that – I ain’t got the time to waste worryin’ bout what they think of me or anyone else.

So anyway, some of the local cowboys was riding some steers into town and somehow or other along the way, they managed to wrangle a stallion into the herd. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Prettiest horse you ever saw, but feisty… almost mean.

Well, they managed to get it corralled separate from the cows and then the bets started running about who was gonna claim it. The Army boys… they was pretty sure one of them would take him – after all, they had men whose sole job was to break and train horses, right? So of course that made them the odds on favorites… ‘cept for one thing. No one reckoned on Reb Stone and her ability to communicate with animals like she could.”

Donoma’s eyes shone. She had several fond memories of Koko Kanti talking to animals most of the People never got a chance to be near. Kitty caught her expression.

“I take it you’ve seen her in action before.”

“Yes… with panther, fox and wolf.”

Kitty’s eyes got big and round. “Damnation!” she muttered. “Woman doesn’t fool around much, does she? That makes a stallion seem tame no matter how mean he is. Still, it’s a good story, so….” She paused thoughtfully. “Ya know, now that I think about it, this is when those Washburn boys started making trouble for Reb. She got something they wanted,” she mused almost to herself.

After a moment she shook herself from her reverie and looked at Donoma. “Sorry… got to thinking for a minute there. Where was I? Oh right… Reb and that stallion. So anyway, the men gathered round the corral – they’d drawn lots to see who would go first and Malcolm Washburn was the first to go up.” Seeing the questions in the green eyes, Kitty held up her hand. “It’ll make sense in a minute.

See, Malcolm’s the youngest of the Washburn boys, but he ain’t part of the Army. No, he works his daddy’s huge spread ’bout a hundred miles from here; he was here visitin’ his brothers. Well, ’bout the time he climbed up on that black’s back, Reb, come outta the saloon to see what all the ruckus was about. That horse took one good look at her and bucked Malcolm off so hard, I bet his ears are still ringin’. He tried to get back on, but that black back kicked him in the knee and Malcolm crumpled.”

Donoma winced reflexively. No matter her feelings for those whose last name was Washburn, she wouldn’t wish that sort of misfortune on anyone. Just the idea sounded painful. Kitty nodded her unspoken agreement. “I have never heard a man scream like that before. Far’s I know, it never did set just right. Malcolm walks with a pronounced limp and he no longer rides a horse. Could be wrong about that – after all, it’s been a while since I’ve seen him, but I don’t think so.

Now Reb was just standing along the corral fence like all the rest. She didn’t move… didn’t do anything to draw awareness to herself, but I think it was her utter stillness that pulled that horse’s attention to her. Now before you ask, me and the girls had wandered out with her. Might as well have – every able-bodied man in town was there… we weren’t doing any business anyway.

So the black approaches her and the men step back a pace, just to watch what’ll happen. Malcolm was screamin’ and Leroy and Reuben had already rushed to move him outta the corral to keep him from being hurt further if the horse decided to turn on him. But once he was out and being looked at by the Army doc, Leroy jumped back in, furious.”

“He like rock,” Donoma said unexpectedly. Kitty did a double take at her words, then burst into laughter. Even Big Mama chortled and brought the pitcher of lemonade to the table before taking a seat and filling all three glasses. Kitty nodded her thanks and Donoma did the same before turning back to Kitty. “What funny? Spoke truth.”

“Chile, you sure nuff did that, but mos’ folks roun’ des parts don’ do mucha dat. Too busy worryin’ ’bout things as don’ concern ’em.”

“Big Mama’s right, Donoma,” Kitty confirmed. “So many folks worried ’bout what others think they don’t generally speak so plainly. It’s refreshing. And you’re right – Leroy was like a rock. Most folks round here figured his daddy bought his commission, cause he damned sure wasn’t bright enough to earn it.” She sighed and took a drink.

“Finish tellin’ Kitty, ‘fore I haveta get back to the stove,” Big Mama chided.

“All right, Big Mama… all right. So anyway, Leroy decided he was gonna teach that horse some manners, ‘cept that the horse had already picked the one he wanted. Leroy grabbed the black by the mane and the horse bit him – hard enough to draw blood but not quite hard enough to break anything. His mates pulled him out of the circle, then the rest waited to see what was gonna happen ‘tween Reb and that horse.

The horse butted her hard enough to knock her to the ground and she woulda fallen had she not clutched the railing quick enough. The horse whinnied, laughing at her and butted her again – only this time he got caught. She grabbed his nostrils and pinched. He shook his head trying to shake her loose, but she held on… not hurtin’ him, but making damn sure he knew who was boss. After a moment, he shook his head again, but in surrender this time. When she let go, he butted her again, but this time he was gentle and he just pushed his head into her chest, waiting to be scratched.

Now, several of the other men tried to approach that stallion, but after they were all rather viciously turned away by the horse, most of them walked away and left Reb to it. Only Leroy seemed unable to take a hint and he thought he’d try again, only to have Reb jump on the horse’s back before he could get close enough to do anything.

The stallion reared, nearly clocking Leroy in the head, and he scampered outta that ring quick-like. Reb held on through all the bucking and twisting that black could manage and after only a few minutes, he was walking under her direction. Oh, Donoma… I’ve never seen anything more magnificent in my life and she was so proud sitting up there. Then he bucked and twisted a little more and we realized that he was playin’ with her… his idea of fun.”

“I seems to ‘member Reb walkin’ funny after alla dat, but wearin’ the biggest grin I ever seen on her face,” Big Mama said. “‘Twas good to see her so happy, even all black ‘n’ blue.”

“Black ‘n’ blue?” Donoma repeated slowly.

“Oh yes, chile… that horse maya been playin’, but Reb wore his roughhousin’ on her pusson for a few days. Never did lose that smile when she looked at him though.” She rose from her place and walked back to the stove, removing the lid and stirring the pot a few times before shifting it away from the heat. “That’ll do fo’ now,” she said before reclaiming her seat.

“No, she didn’t,” Kitty agreed. “But there were sure some disgruntled men round here for a day or two.”

“Only dem Washburn boys, Kitty. Tell it fair.”

“No, Mama… a few of the fellas were a little upset that they didn’t get their shot at Black, but they were smart enough to know that if the horse made the choice, they wouldn’t have had a chance anyway. Leroy was the one who couldn’t let it go – said Reb hadn’t put in her dollar to ride ’em so she couldn’t get to keep him.” She exchanged glances with Mama and they snickered. “When that horse kicked Leroy in his privates, he learned to stay far away.”

“He shot me,” Donoma said suddenly, bringing two sets of eyes to her face.

“You’re kiddin’,” Kitty said disbelievingly. For answer, Donoma widened the neck of her shirt until the two women sitting with her could see the scarred pink skin at her shoulder. Big Mama reached out, then looked at Donoma for permission. When the blonde head nodded, she touched the newly healed wound with tender, knowing fingers.

“You healed good, chile.”

“Koko cared for me; made Donoma well again.”

“Why?” Kitty asked, then held up her hands when incredulous green eyes turned her way full of questions. “Wait… that didn’t come out right. I know why Reb cared for you – anyone with half an eye can see she’s crazy in love with you, Donoma. Why did Leroy Washburn shoot you, and how do you know it was Leroy?”

“Marshall say Leroy. Shot to steal Black.”

“You’re kiddin’,” Kitty repeated and Donoma glared.

“Not kidding,” she stated firmly.

“Right then,” Kitty said after a moment. “So tell us something about growing up with Reb… Koko Kanti,” she corrected herself. “Something about the two of you.”

Donoma focused inward for a few moments, then nodded to herself. She wouldn’t embarrass Koko, but she wanted these women to know the woman she loved.

“When Donoma was eight cycles, Koko teach to swim. Was scared – never been in deep water before.”

“Where did she teach you to swim out here?”

Donoma shrugged. “Big water… Koko find. First teach float on water. Lay in Koko’s strong arms and find pictures in clouds. Donoma not know when Koko let go. Not know until Koko move to other side.”

“Did you panic?” Kitty asked, remembering her first experience learning how to swim. Somehow she thought Reb would have been a much gentler instructor that Kitty’s older brother had been. Donoma’s brow furrowed as she pondered the unfamiliar word Kitty had used.

“Was frightened, then Koko calmed. Saw her, knew no more fear. After, she teach swim… and catch fish with hands.”

Two sets of brown eyes widened at this pronouncement and they exchanged looks with one another before looking at Donoma and goggling.

“Excuse me?”

“What you said, chile?”

Donoma spoke more slowly, thinking it was her halting use of the white man’s tongue that was causing their confusion. “Koko teach swim and catch fish with hands.”

They blinked rapidly, still goggling. “Can you really *do* that?”

“Yes,” Donoma stated without hesitation.

“Reb do dat too?” turning to Kitty before Donoma could reply. “Wonner why we’uns never knowed dat?”

“Probably because we’re not that close to any real source of water here,” Kitty responded dryly.

“Mebbe… mebbe Big Mama’ll ask for some fish nex’ time Reb come to town.”

“Maybe Kitty’ll ask for a live demonstration.” Kitty turned back to Donoma. “What do you think, Donoma? Would Reb show us how to catch fish with our hands?”

“Donoma not know. Koko not teach warriors except Honaw and he not do good.”

“Well, maybe we’ll ask her, but not today. I think she’s had a hard enough day today already.”

“We get hot bath today – Koko promise Donoma.”

Kitty smiled. She liked Donoma – first for Reb’s sake and then for her own. She was definitely Reb’s equal but still a good match… complimenting Reb’s personality to a T. She patted Donoma’s hand and rose from her place. “Well, then… if Reb promised you a hot bath, I think we should go pry her away from Stephen and the Colonel and get ya’ll set up. Big Mama… thank you for the cookies and lemonade. They were scrumptious.”

“Yes,” Donoma agreed. “Donoma like very much,” standing as well.

Big Mama smiled her toothy grin. “Chile, you welcome in mah kitchen any time.” Then she stood and enveloped Donoma in a brief hug before moving back to her stove. Kitty shook her head at Donoma’s expression, then directed them back out into the main part of the saloon.

Koko was watching for them and stood as soon as they appeared. Ginger hadn’t been able to tell them much more than they already knew and she’d been biding her time, wanting Kitty and Donoma to make friends in their own way. Her shoulders sagged with relief when they came out smiling and chatting quietly until they reached the table. Then Kitty glared at her.

“Reb Stone, I expect you to be bringin’ this lovely young bride of yours to town a little more often than once every five years.
I know you said you’re newlyweds and all,” Kitty conceded holding up a hand. “But I’m puttin’ you on notice. Big Mama and
I enjoyed our visit with Donoma Chepi and we’d like to do it a little more regularly. Now,” she continued without pause, “Donoma informs me you promised to introduce her to the joys of a hot bath. So go put Black up and bring your stuff in. I’m gonna show her to your room and you can take things from there.”

Koko nodded, wondering when exactly she’d lost control of the situation. Then she heard muffled chuckling coming from behind her and turned to glare at Murphy and Spencer. They bit their lips and stood.

“I’ll get the telegrams sent out about Washburn,” the Colonel said as he snatched up his hat. “Though I’m thinking his old man may come into town for this. He’s not gonna like it.”

“Too damn bad,” Reb commented. “Not my fault.”

“I’m still gonna do some looking around. Somethin’ about this whole thing ain’t sittin’ just right with me. I’ll let you know what I find out,” Murphy said, addressing both of them.

Koko nodded and held out her hand to Donoma who was instantly at her side. “Sounds good,” she agreed. “We’ll be here til in the morning, but after that, we’re heading home again. We may travel to the People for the summer celebration, but that is still a ways off. Now if you gentlemen will excuse us….” The two tipped their hats towards Donoma and Koko turned to Kitty.

“I’ll be a couple minutes. I need to speak to Hassun. Spence offered to send him here.”

Kitty nodded. “We’ll be fine, Reb. Take care of your business.”

“I won’t be long, ka’eskone,” to Donoma. Then she turned and left the saloon, leaving Donoma to follow Kitty up the stairs.
Chapter XXXV
“I can see the appeal of a hot bath,” Donoma said as she leaned back into Koko’s body and allowed the warm water to surround them again. She felt Koko chuckle behind her and smiled in response. Kitty had been as good as her word and taken Donoma upstairs and assured that she was comfortable and a promise that they would talk again later. Donoma had taken the opportunity to look around the sparse room, noting the impersonality of it. Obviously this was not a home – it was merely a resting place.

“I thought you might,” Koko replied as she absently rubbed her fingers over soap-slicked skin. “Now you understand why I wanted to introduce you to the experience. Although it’s not worth living in town for, it’s a nice treat when I’m here. That is one reason I would really like to build one in the cabin – no trips into town for a hot bath. Besides, I could make it large enough to comfortably fit us without needing to curl my knees up out of the water.”

Donoma turned her head until she could meet Koko’s eyes. “I believe I would enjoy that, warrior.”

Now Koko’s laugh was rolling and Donoma joined her, enjoying the sensation as Koko’s hands tightened reflexively around her middle. “I believe we both would, ka’eskone.”

The quiet was comfortable, but after a few minutes, Donoma asked, “Koko, why did you need to speak to Hassun? Is he not the Army scout?”

“He is indeed, ka’eskone. I needed him to take care of something. He is going to the People to ask them to keep an eye out for possible horse thieves. The accusations are coming from somewhere and that usually means they are based in fact. I believe they could be instrumental in helping apprehend whoever is behind this – if that is what Leroy Washburn was doing when he tried to take Black, they will eventually come across the People in their search for wild horses.”

“Will they be all right, Koko? I do not want this to bring trouble to them and I have had no vision….”

“Ka’eskone, you know as well as I do that the Great Spirit does not always gift you with sight when you desire it. But do you not think that it is better for the People to be prepared for the possibility of trouble than for it to come upon them unaware? Honaw will prepare the warriors and they will be alert for anything out of the ordinary.”

“You are right, warrior. It just….”

“I know, ka’eskone. And I would not involve them now if I did not expect them to be involved later. There is a reason that Leroy was so close to the People when he stumbled across you and Black. Spencer has never given orders for such small scouting parties to go so far west in their search for horses without having the entire brigade behind them to back them up if they run into trouble.”

Silence fell again as Donoma considered Koko’s words. “Why?” she asked finally.

Koko frowned. “Why what, Donoma?” having lost the train of the conversation during the ensuing quiet. Her focus had changed to the smooth slickness of the skin she was enveloping and it took a moment to return her attention to their previous discussion.

“Why have the Blue Coats not raided the People’s territory for their horses? Honaw says they are thieves and cowards, attacking without reason. And we follow the buffalo – surely that would be sufficient for the People to have been brought to their attention by now.”

“Perhaps… I am inclined to agree with Honaw’s assessment for the most part. I know the warriors go out to do battle with them to keep the Blue Coats from coming to the People and Takoda is vigilant about watching for dreams and signs to keep the People safe. But since coming into the white man’s world, I have discovered that the Blue Coats have a vested interest in keeping the warriors of the tribes busy while stealing their land and forwarding their own interests.”

“Then why are you friends with the Blue Coat Spencer?”

Koko sighed. “Because life here is a series of compromises, ka’eskone. And I could not function as a bounty hunter without his support.”

Donoma thought about that – then decided that the complexities of white man’s world were far more intricate than she was going to appreciate any time soon. “I do not understand, but that is not important at the moment. I have a feeling I could try to comprehend the white man until the Great Spirit calls me to the great beyond and still not begin to understand their thinking.”

Koko chuckled lightly. “I do not think they understand themselves, ka’eskone. Otherwise, they would not be so disruptive to everything around them.”

“Enough about the white men and their Blue Coats for now,” Donoma proclaimed definitively. “I want to know how Black knew how to find us… why he brought you to the People when you told him to take you home.”

Koko sighed. She’d wondered when Donoma would get around to asking that question. “Come,” she said, rising carefully behind Donoma and allowing the water to sheet from her body before she stepped from the tub. She extended her hand and Donoma took it, standing as well and flushing under Koko’s appreciative gaze.

Koko smiled and took one of the rough towels Kitty had left for them, rubbing it randomly over Donoma’s sensitive skin, taking special care around the tender scar tissue. She smiled and dropped the towel once Donoma was dry, tracing her fingers over the goosebumps left behind. Donoma shivered, then captured Koko’s hand, bringing it to her mouth and laving each finger thoroughly.

Koko whimpered and felt her knees bucking. “Ka’eskone,” she whispered. “Please.” Donoma retrieved the second towel and began her own thorough drying session, smiling in satisfaction when Koko trembled under her touch. Without warning, the warrior turned and pulled Donoma into her, so they were in contact along their entire lengths. She claimed Donoma fiercely, passionately and only when the seer’s knees buckled under the strain of continuing to hold her upright did Koko pull back slightly.

Their communication was unspoken, yet it was heard as clearly as though the words had been said aloud. Koko let her arms unwind from the embrace they’d cradled Donoma in, sliding her hands down smooth arms until they met Donoma’s hands. Then she clasped her hands and lifted them to her lips.

“I love you, Donoma Chepi,” she said in English. Donoma crinkled up her nose with the smile that crossed her face when Koko spoke those words.

“I love you, Koko Kanti Reb Stone,” she replied in slow, halting English. Koko leaned forward and kissed her nose, chuckling.

“I never realized how all those names together would sound. It is a little ridiculous.”

Donoma grinned. “I am glad I need not use them all every time I wish to speak to you, warrior. I think my voice would soon give out.”

The sound of raucous laughter intruded and then a heavy body fell against the door. Koko growled but before she could pull away, Donoma had snatched up Koko’s dressing gown and slipped it over her head.

“Mine,” she stated clearly to the unasked question in Koko Kanti’s eyes. “If you are going to go out there to teach him some manners,” indicating the door that had rattled again, “I would prefer if you do so clothed. I do not share well with others.”

Koko smiled at the possessive tone. “I seem to recall that,” she said, claiming another kiss. “Get dressed, Nutta. I’ll be right back.” She eased Donoma behind the door before opening it and stepping out into the hall.

Donoma slid into her own dressing gown, running her hands along the odd, stiff material. It wasn’t like anything she had worn before, and though it was not unlike Koko’s, it was not worn like hers either and had not attained the softness of wear. She pushed her sleeve up, remembering Koko’s earlier instructions about the tub as they prepared for their bath. She pulled the plug, then collected their things, trying to ignore the thumping and groaning just outside the door.

After another moment, the door opened and a slightly disheveled Koko stood in front of her with a crooked smile. “Come, ka’eskone,” she beckoned. “I have a story to tell you and we have some unfinished business to take care of.”

Donoma took Koko’s hand and let her lead her down the hall to the far door. Then they entered the quiet privacy of their room and Koko closed the door carefully behind them before locking it securely. Then she pulled her dressing gown over her head and stepped closer to Donoma.

“Now… where were we?” sliding her hands along Donoma’s ribs. Green eyes twinkled devilishly.

“You were going to tell me about Black and how he was able to find us.”

Koko growled, deliberately unbuttoning Donoma’s clothing and sliding her hands inside. “The story will keep, ka’eskone. I will not.”

Donoma ginned and tangled her hands in the still-wet, dark hair. “Good to know you have your priorities straight, warrior,” claiming Koko’s lips before she could respond. Koko lifted Donoma into her arms, ignoring the strain on her belly and depositing the two of them in the middle of her small bed. Fortunately, she thought as one of Donoma’s hands scratched the back of her neck as the other began to explore the contours of her torso, it was just big enough for two.

And that was really all they needed for now. Talk would come later.

************

When word came from the People’s scouts that an Army scout was headed towards the camp, the warriors moved as one body to prepare for battle. Honaw, remembering Koko’s words to him and Keezheekoni, asked Odahingum for permission to meet the scout alone first.

“If he is who I think he is,” Honaw intoned seriously, “he brings news from Koko Kanti.”

“And if he is not?” Odahingum replied with equal seriousness. “Honaw, you are among the best warriors the People have, but even you cannot defeat the Blue Coats alone.” He sighed. “At least take a small party with you to watch your back – for my peace of mind if nothing else.”

“Thank you, Odahingum,” Honaw answered with a nod. “I will take Keezheekoni and my hestatanemos. We will not be long.” He motioned to the warriors he had selected, making sure the rest knew to wait. Then they rode off in the direction where the interloper waited them. Odahingum turned to Takoda.

“Any thoughts, my friend?”

“Nothing I am certain you have not already considered. If Koko Kanti has sent someone in her stead, it probably does not bode well for good news. Otherwise, she and Donoma Chepi would be here themselves. On the other hand, at least we will get news if it is not an ambush.”

Odahingum motioned to his fire and Takoda took the seat offered. Odahingum resumed his own and sighed. “Do you think they will return home to us, Takoda?”

Takoda shook his dark head. “I cannot say, my friend. The Great Spirit has shown me nothing concerning the two of them. I am not certain if that is a bad sign or a good one.”

Odahingum chuckled. “With the two of them involved, it is hard to say. Do you remember when they took off and disappeared for three days?”

Takoda laughed. “Oh yes… the only reason I did not panic is I knew Donoma Chepi was in the safest hands possible. But it did not stop me from wondering why they left… or why they came back covered in mud.”

“They never told you?”

Takoda shook his head. “No… they were very good at keeping secrets when they wanted to.”

Odahingum nodded his agreement, then looked back in the direction Honaw and his compatriots had gone. “I hope Honaw is right… and this is news from Koko Kanti. Perhaps it will explain the lack of Blue Coat activity around us lately.” He sighed. “I should be grateful for the rest, and I am on some level. But it is very wearing waiting for an attack that has yet to come.”

“I know, Odahingum. I do not know if it is our change in course that has eliminated the attacks recently or if something has changed for the Blue Coats. Either way, the bit of peace has been nice, but I sense the warriors are on edge.”

“Do you think we should resume our normal course to the summer encampment?”

Takoda shrugged. “I think we should wait and see what Honaw and his party discover about our mysterious visitor. If he is not an advance scout for a Blue Coat attack, he might have some answers for us. The Great Spirit works in inexplicable ways sometimes.”

“My friend, the Great Spirit *always* works in ways I do not understand. I am glad you do.”

Takoda grinned. “At least on occasion.”

Then Honaw’s war party was returning escorting the unknown scout and Takoda and Odahingum rose to meet him.

Honaw dismounted his horse and motioned to the other warriors to do the same. Keezheekoni dismissed them, indicating his seriousness by shooing them away from the chief’s fire and back to their other responsibilities. Most went back to their own fires, but kept a watchful eye on the people gathered around Odahingum’s firepit.

Honaw stood beside Hassun, waiting for an invitation to join Odahingum and Takoda. Hassun stood still, unmoving, understanding he was being weighed in the balance. He had chosen not to wear his Blue Coat, knowing it was a source of much hatred and derision out here among the People. He wondered again how he had come to this… once a proud warrior of his own tribe until the lure of the white man’s world became too much. Now he had no real place to call home – the whites disdained him and the People despised him. Then his attention was taken by Odahingum and he let his thoughts slide to the wayside. There was nothing to be done for them anyway.

The chief motioned him to a seat and he accepted with a slight nod before taking a seat. Honaw sat on one side and Keez sat on the other, with the two elders sitting side by side across from them.

“So,” Odahingum started unceremoniously, “you bring news from Koko Kanti?”

Hassun nodded. “I do Chief Odahingum,” remembering the names Reb Stone had impressed upon his memory. “She asked that
I let you know that the People could be in imminent danger.”

“We are always in danger from the Blue Coats,” Odahingum stated without hesitation. “Why would she see fit to warn me of something of which I am already aware?”

“She did not indicate that the danger was specifically from the Blue Coats, Chief. There are horse thieves working in these parts, and while that is not necessarily a new threat, she believes they are targeting the People as they are strong with many horses and buffalo. And you are currently the closest tribe to the white man’s outpost.”

Takoda and Odahingum exchanged glances, but said nothing in front of the stranger. Litonya stood just outside the circle and Odahingum beckoned her forward, knowing if he was curious, she had to be as well. She nodded her thanks and took her place beside Takoda. Hassun looked at her questioningly, but knew if the chief had invited her, there must be a reason that a woman had joined them.

Litonya studied Hassun for a moment, liking his eyes despite what she knew to be the truth about him. Blue Coat scouts were seen as traitors to the People, so if Koko Kanti had made friends with the young man, there must be something worthy about him.

“Tell me… have you seen Koko Kanti and Donoma Chepi?” Hassun nodded. “Are they well?”

He let his mind wander back to his vision of the two of them as he had seen them just after Reb had killed Reuben Washburn. “Yes – I believe them to be very happy together. I did not get to speak to Donoma Chepi, but Reb… Koko Kanti… asked me to assure her family that things are good for them.”

“Will they be coming home soon?”

Hassun shook his head. “I do not know; she did not say.”

Litonya nodded her acceptance. “Thank you for sharing her news with us. It is good to know they are doing well in white man’s world. As much as I would like to have them home, I do not want them to be miserable where they are.”

Hassun nodded, but didn’t reply. There was no way he was going to get into the complications that surrounded them. Hopefully, they would be home soon to explain things for themselves.

************

Mordecai Washburn crumpled the telegram in his hands and looked at the cowboy who’d had the misfortune of being the messenger. “Get. Out.” He growled between clenched teeth before turning to look out the window of his large spread.

He’d worked long and hard to own so much, buying out those he could for as little as he could manage, then squeezing out and stealing from the rest. Now he owned thousands of acres that had once been part of the People’s land that they had roamed freely. Bit by bit he was committed to taking it all… killing those who resisted and taking what was left for his own devices.

Fortunately, the Army tended to be on his side – or that had been while his sons had been part of it. Now though….

He looked at the telegram he held in his hands again – not the official missive. No, this came from one of the few spies he had left at the fort where his sons had been stationed until just recently – until their deaths, he corrected himself. And they hadn’t even died in battle.

Reuben dead. STOP. Killed in gunfight Reb Stone. STOP. Advise. STOP.

He stood from his chair and crossed to the cabinets that held his gun collection. It was time to take care of Reb Stone himself.
Chapter XXXVI
“So, are you going to tell me the story of how Black found us or was this a clever diversion on your part?” Donoma asked as they lay curled up together in the middle of the small bed. She let her hands trace over Koko’s skin, taking the time to examine her recently healed scars.

Koko chuckled at the light touch running up and down her belly. “That tickles,” she confessed, linking their hands together. She blew out a breath. “You have to understand how much I missed the People when I left. Even taking you out of the picture, I still missed them fiercely – they gave me and my Nahko’e a home when we were without and I was alone… something I had never been. When Black chose me, I spent a lot of time with him, training him to be a warhorse. I am not certain why, except that it gave me a sense of purpose.”

“I am glad you had him, warrior, and I’m glad you took the time to teach him. He saved my life.”

“And mine as well, ka’eskone. I would not have survived without you… not once I knew….” clenching her fingers around Donoma’s in reaction, stopping just short of hurting her.

“He saved you twice then, Nutta. Because he saved your life when he brought you home to me.”

“In more ways than one, ka’eskone,” moving her free hand to stroke Donoma’s cheek. “When I started chasing outlaws, it took me out into the Plains more often than not. And when we were close enough to see the People, Black and I would always spend some time doing just that – watching without being seen. And he would listen to me talk about home and the People… and you.”

“How many times, Koko? How often were you close?” Donoma asked, her ire sparking again at the thought of the time they had wasted.

“Often enough that Black understood that it was home for me despite living somewhere else. Enough that he recognized the scent of the People.” Donoma blew out a breath and sat up. Koko eased up, feeling Donoma’s upset clearly. “Ka’eskone?”

“I am angry, warrior – not at you… at us. I think about what we lost… how easily it would have been for us to have never been together and it makes me crazy.”

Koko wrapped her arms around Donoma and leaned into the smaller body before leaning back and pulling Donoma into her. “Do not think of the time we missed, ka’eskone; instead think of the time we have left to live together.” She sighed. “It makes me angry too… to know that my decision to leave instead of talking to you first caused the rift between us. But I cannot change it –
I have to move forward. I am simply glad Black was smarter than I was.”

“As am I, warrior. But I am thankful you were wise enough to show him where home really was.” Donoma shifted until she was tucked under Koko’s chin and able to see her profile if she tilted her head just right. “How long will Hassun be gone?” she asked in a complete change of subject.

Koko shrugged behind her. “I cannot say for certain, but I believe it will be at least two weeks… half a moon. If the People are on track to reach the summer camp in time for the festival, they are at least a week’s worth of hard travel from here… possibly more. And he has to do the same in reverse to return. Why?”

“Do we have to stay here to wait for him?”

“What? No, ka’eskone! I have no intention of being stuck in this town for that long. I would have to do something drastic. The nosey old women here would drive me to it.”

“Why? Why would they drive you to do something drastic? Could you not simply ignore them?”

“I have tried that, ka’eskone. It was not very successful. Besides, the fact is they would come after you and we both know I would never stand for that.” Her eyes twinkled in merriment remembering the single occasion it had happened with the People, knowing Donoma would follow her train of thought.

************

The day had started out innocently enough. Koko and the other warriors had gone out early to scout the area around the encampment. One of the other tribes had warned them of the encroaching white man and they had wanted to see things for themselves. Donoma did not go – she and Koko had spoken about it at length the night before and despite Donoma’s desire to accompany her warrior, she understood the risk was too great. It didn’t make her happy, though, and Rae’l and Litonya had their hands full keeping the young seer occupied.

It was after dark when the warriors returned, grim-faced and agitated. Donoma ran to meet Koko, only to be intercepted by one of the older unattached girls in the tribe.

“Go away, little girl. This is not for your eyes and ears.” She pushed Donoma aside and was the first to meet the warriors, wrapping her hands around Koko’s arm possessively. Koko stopped walking and the warriors around her did the same, anxious to see the outcome of such a display.

Koko searched for Donoma, seeing her picking herself up off the ground where the older girl had shoved her and crossing her arms over her chest glaring. Deliberately, she removed the hand that was clutching her arm and dropped it with a sneering look.

“You do not treat Donoma Chepi with such disrespect. Her place is at my side,” Koko added, raising her voice so all could hear her declaration. She held out her hand and Donoma dropped her hands to her side before moving forward to accept it.

The other girl put her hands on her hips and jutted her chin out defiantly. “She’s a *child*. You deserve more than a *child* for companionship!”

“I deserve to choose the companionship I would like to have, Norita. She is my warrior advisor and my best friend, and she expects nothing from me except my friendship in return. I prefer her company.”

Donoma stepped forward. “I may be a child, Norita, but I know better than to go where I am not wanted.” The warriors listening felt their eyes grow big and their mouths drop open, but no one moved. Donoma had never been so aggressive before, but never had anyone been foolish enough to try to come between her and Koko so openly either.

“Then why do you stay with the People, Donoma Chepi?” came the girl’s scathing retort. “You have never been wanted here. You are not even one of us.”

“THAT’S ENOUGH!” Koko roared, drawing the attention of the entire encampment. “I warned you not to disrespect Donoma Chepi, Norita. I will speak to Takoda and Odahingum of your contempt for such a valued member of the tribe and ask for your banishment.”

“You cannot be serious. Koko Kanti… she is a child! I was merely offering you a more reasonable alternative.”

Donoma laughed, the sound causing those around her to do the same, even if she hadn’t delivered her joke yet. After a moment, Donoma sobered and looked Norita squarely in the eye. “Norita,” she said calmly and sincerely, “you will never be a reasonable alternative where Koko Kanti is concerned. You do not care about her… only the prestige and honor she would bring to you as a mate. She deserves better – she deserves to find love and happiness with one who will love her… not just who and what she is. And you deserve someone who will appreciate you for who you are as well… and not just what you will do for them.”

“My daughter speaks truth, Norita – and she speaks wisely,” Takoda said as he approached them through the milling crowd. “Do not discount her words because of her age or who she is or because it is not what you want to hear. Listen and heed her words.”

“And if I do not?” Norita asked with a snarl, marring her pretty face.

“The elders and I will seriously consider Koko Kanti’s request for banishment or relocation to another tribe. We will not tolerate such discord here.”

“I see,” she ground out.

“I hope you do, Norita. You are a valued member of the tribe as well.”

“Just not as important as Donoma Chepi or Koko Kanti – is that right?”

Takoda didn’t answer her question. Instead he cocked his head at her thoughtfully and put a hand to his lips. “Think about it, Norita. Why did you feel the need to make such a public showing of perceived ownership? Did it accomplish what you hoped it would?”

Without a word he turned and headed back to the encampment and the warriors followed him silently. Koko and Donoma exchanged glances and then Koko extended her hand. Donoma accepted the offer and the two turned together to walk out onto the Plains without a backwards glance – away from the direction the warriors has just come. Norita watched them go before heading back to the camp. She had plans to make.

************

“I wonder whatever happened to Norita,” Donoma mused.

“I do not know, ka’eskone. I cannot believe she would have survived very long on her own out on the Plains. She had no knowledge of how to hunt or fight or….”

“I know, but it saddens me to think I might have inadvertently driven her to her death.”

“You cannot think that way, Donoma. She is responsible for the choices she made, as are we all responsible for our own choices. Those choices shape who we are and how we live. Besides, she was not the first who tried to come between us, and Honaw survived just fine.”

Donoma snickered. “He should have known better than to tease. He lived with me my whole life until he joined with Gaagii.”

“He did it on a dare, ka’eskone. I found out after the fact. Keez and your hestatanemos wanted to see if it would stir you up.”

“I guess they got their answer.”

Koko laughed. “Three times, actually. You let Honaw have it, I let Honaw have it and then he did the same to them, except he beat them up.

“Really?” At Koko’s nod, Donoma chuckled. “Well that would explain why they went out of their way to avoid me for the longest time after that.” Donoma remembered the day clearly.

************

“Donoma Chepi – it is time you give up this foolishness of being a warrior advisor to Koko Kanti. She is not solely your responsibility, nor are you hers. It is time you give up this foolishness.”

“Honaw, she is my warrior protector and I am her warrior advisor – we swore an oath to one another. I will share my knowledge and friendship with those who seek it, but do not mock or make light of what is between Koko and me.”

“You were a child, Donoma and it has been seven full cycles since she came to us. Surely you can release one another of that promise after such a long time. And what of those that want to cultivate a more personal relationship with Koko? She is growing into a woman, Donoma.”

Donoma’s eyes glowed from within and Honaw took a step back. He had meant it as a joke… a bit of teasing put up to him by his friends and hestatanemos. But Donoma didn’t see it as such and he was afraid he was going to end up badly burned because of his foolishness.

“If Koko Kanti wishes to be released from her oath to me, she has but to ask, Honaw. I would never hold her to something that makes her unhappy, but I would prefer that she come to me herself instead of sending you to do it for her,” she added, turning away before he could see the tears in her eyes. He reached out and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder.

“Donoma, I was only teasing you. Koko Kanti knows nothing of this.”

“Why would you tease me about this, Honaw? You know Koko is my best friend.”

Honaw shrugged. “I do not know, ka’eskone. Perhaps because I wish I had what you and Koko share?” He sighed. “Maybe we are all a little jealous.”

“You know if Koko learns of this….”

Honaw swallowed hard. “I know… and it would be no more than we would deserve.”

Donoma studied him for a long moment. “Leave me now, Honaw. I need to think.”

************

“He was on edge for days waiting for you to do something… until he finally confessed to me what he had done. I think he was glad for the fight that followed. It gave him closure.”

Donoma snorted. “Was *that* why you fought then? I thought it was some sort of a warrior ritual, especially after you threw him in the river.” Koko nodded. “It is a good thing he told you.”

“Why is that, ka’eskone?”

“Because I was going to make him wait until he exploded. It is nice to know it worked.”

“You are brutal, Donoma Chepi. I am glad you are on my side.” She chuckled. “I would almost remain here to watch you make the old women in this town twitch because of who and what you are. But I would never expose you to the vitriolic diatribe they are prone to spew without warning. I would have to kill them all. And while I do not think it would be a great loss as far as the human race is concerned, I have no desire to become an outlaw either.”

“So we will go home tomorrow?”

“We will go home tomorrow. Hassun knows how to find me if there is anything I need to know immediately. And for anything that will wait, we will come back to town again in the next moon. I promised Kitty and Big Mama, and they will not let us get by without keeping that promise. I think you made quite an impression on them, ka’eskone.”

“I like them, Koko. They seem like good people.”

“Once you staked your claim,” Koko teased.

Donoma rolled her eyes. “We have established that I am possessive where you are concerned. I do not see that changing for a while, warrior. It has been a problem my whole life.”

Koko smiled and shifted them until she was spooned behind Donoma. Then she cocooned the smaller woman to her. “In case you have not noticed, ka’eskone, I have never objected to that possessive streak of yours. I find I like belonging to you – I always did. My Nahko’e found it amusing, though she never said so to me aloud.”

“How do you know if she did not say?”

Koko laughed, shaking both of them. “She was my Nahko’e, ka’eskone. How do they let you know something when they want you to know without saying a word? For that matter, how do they know things when we do not tell them anything?”

Donoma thought about Koko’s words, then joined her laughter. “You make a good point, Nutta. I know there were many times that my Nahko’e seemed to know far more than she was ever told, especially where the actions of my hestatanemos were concerned.” She shook her head. “I am not certain she ever knew quite how to deal with me. My Neho’e usually took that responsibility.”

“Mine did as well… until his death. Then my Nahko’e had to do it all.” Koko stopped and took a deep breath. “I still miss them.”

Donoma shifted until she could cup Koko’s face in her hands. “You always will, Koko Kanti. But I take comfort in knowing that they are looking out for us.”

Koko smiled. “As long as they know when to look away,” she proclaimed, then leaned down and captured Donoma’s lips for a long moment. Donoma rubbed their noses together.

“Somehow, I do not think that is a problem. The People try to respect one another’s privacy.”

“Thank the Great Spirit for that,” Koko said before reclaiming Donoma’s mouth.

************

Honiahaka and Rae’l turned away from their children when Donoma rubbed their noses together. They smiled.

“It is nice to be missed, but I am glad they have each other.”

Honiahaka nodded thoughtfully. “As am I, Nutta. I believe they will need their combined strength and the love they share to see them through the coming storm.” Rachel turned to him and wrapped her hands in his shirt.

“You know something?”

“I suspect something. I have been watching Mordecai Washburn. He could be trouble.”

“Our nahtona lives for trouble. She always has, Honiahaka. You know this.”

He shook his head. “Not like this, Nutta. When she looks for trouble, she tries to be ready for it. I am afraid she will not see this coming.”

They were silent as they turned their attention to Mordecai Washburn.

************

Mordecai Washburn carefully checked his guns once more. They had all been cleaned and oiled and were loaded in preparation for the fight he expected to get once he caught up to Reb Stone. When he was satisfied they were ready and there was nothing more he could do, he left his office and went to his room to pack his saddlebags. It had been a while since he’d been forced to leave the comfort of his ranch house and he had no desire to suffer while he rode across the Plains. But it was obvious that his personal touch was needed to take care of things now.

Business had fallen to nothing and that was unacceptable. And with Reuben’s death, it was time he stepped up and resumed the reins he should never have given up. He was convinced his two sons would still be alive if he had kept a tighter grip on the operation.

He sighed. There was no help for that now. All he could do from here was go forward and hope to control the damage that had already been done.

Satisfied he had all he needed for his unexpected trip, Washburn turned and headed to the dining room. He was ready for a hot meal, and it would be a little while before he got another chance to have one.

His foreman came in when he was finished, assuring him that his entourage was ready and the ranch would be taken care of in his absence. Mordecai nodded his appreciation, then extinguished the lamps and walked to his bedroom. Tomorrow was going to be a long day.
Chapter XXXVII
It was quite the little Posse that formed up around Mordecai Washburn as the sun peeked over the horizon early the next morning. He had several mercenaries at his beck and call to handle any kind of emergency that arose. Now they were packed and ready to move out to finally do something about Reb Stone. She’d been a thorn in his side damn long enough.

“So what’s the plan, boss?”

“The plan?” Washburn snorted with contempt. “The plan is to take care of Reb Stone. She’s an abomination and a troublemaker. It’s time to rid the world of her filth.”

The men rolled their eyes as they mounted their horses. They had heard Washburn’s rhetoric more than once, and it was frankly a little old and somewhat annoying. He felt that way about everyone who was different from him… including them, but he was powerful and paid well so they let it go. Eventually, someone new would come along who could offer them more and Washburn would be history, but for now, he was their best option.

“Yeah, we got that part, boss,” Riggins, the de facto leader spoke. “But do you have a plan on specifically how you’d like her to be taken care of?”

Washburn shook his head and clicked to his horse, knowing the entourage would fall in place as they progressed. “No,” he admitted. “Not yet. I think we need to get there and see what we can find out. Then we’ll make our plans accordingly. The way things have been going recently, she won’t even do me the courtesy of being there when we arrive.”

Riggins nodded. “I wonder what caused Reuben to go after her. I thought he was going to wait….” cutting his eyes towards the elder Washburn and wondering if he would get an answer.

Mordecai didn’t respond. He wasn’t going to admit that he had threatened Reuben to take care of the situation or he would see to it personally. He was seeing to it personally now, and that was enough. He never thought his eldest son would have been stupid enough to call her out like that. He should have ambushed her.

Riggins sat back in his saddle and pulled the brim of his hat down lower over his eyes. They had days of traveling to do – there was plenty of time. He’d work on worming it out of Washburn. It wasn’t that it particularly mattered… Riggins simply wanted to know.

The caravan settled into a steady pace as the sun slowly moved up into the sky. It was going to be a long day.

************

Kitty and the girls dragged themselves out of bed early to see Donoma and Koko off. Kitty had tried to convince them to stay longer, but it was to no avail. Koko and Donoma were anxious to leave town and given their experience during their brief stay, no one could rightly blame them. So they were packed and ready to go first thing and the girls came downstairs to say a very short goodbye before returning to their beds for more sleep.

“I’m glad you came into town, Reb. It was lovely to meet the woman who holds your heart,” taking Koko’s hand and squeezing it gently. “It’s nice to see you so happy – gives the rest of us hope.” Koko blushed but she met Donoma’s gaze with a smile. Kitty grinned at the two of them. “You are so good together.” Kitty released Koko’s hand and opened her arms to Donoma. “Do you think I could maybe get a hug?”

Donoma’s eyes got big at the request but she stepped forward into Kitty’s embrace. The hug was over in a bare moment, but Kitty’s smile was huge. Koko nodded her head ever so briefly in approval. It was a giant accomplishment for both Donoma and Kitty and Kitty was proud to have earned Donoma’s trust.

Big Mama came bustling out of the kitchen holding a wrapped bundle which she extended out to them. “Jus’ a li’l sumpin’ for de road,” she explained. Koko accepted it, then gave Mama a brief hug. She stepped back and waited for Big Mama to speak to Donoma.

Big Mama took Donoma in a hug, not giving her a chance to refuse and almost smothering her in the process. She kissed the top of the blonde head and smiled as she released her hold on Donoma. “You’uns be careful goin’ home now, chile. We wan’ ya’ll to be comin’ back real soon.”

“Thank you, Big Mama. We will,” Donoma replied in slow, stilting English. “It was good to meet all of you as well.” She stepped back, running into Koko with a thump. Donoma looked back with a smile and Koko grinned before motioning to the horses with an arched brow. Donoma nodded and they mounted their horses, then halted at a cry from up the street. Kitty remained, as did Big Mama, when Stephen Murphy arrived. He blew out a winded breath.

“You two take care, Stone,” he said when he could speak. “I expect Old Man Washburn’ll be heading this way and chances are he’ll be out for vengeance. We haven’t heard anything which is what makes me think that.” He paused. “Gotta wonder why him and his boys seem so fixated on you. Even your being a woman and a bounty hunter ain’t enough to explain all that.”

“Maybe not, but it’s just another reason for us to hightail it outta here, Murph. No sense in bringing more trouble to the folks of this town than necessary. Most of them have enough to deal with with their own petty hatred and bigotry. I wouldn’t want to add to that any more than I already have,” she added with a smirk.

“Seems like you could teach ’em a thing or two if you were of a mind.”

“Probably not, Kitty. Some folks are too set in their ways to see beyond their own prejudice. You know that as well or better than any of us.”

“You should come to People,” Donoma commented unexpectedly.

Kitty blinked, then smiled. “Thank you, Donoma Chepi. That is probably the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me,” accepting it for the compliment it was intended to be. “One day I might just take you up on that.”

“Keep your eyes open, Reb,” Murphy cautioned again. “I really don’t like….”

“Koko watch for Washburn – Donoma watch out for Koko.”

Donoma’s pronouncement made everyone smile. “Thanks, Mrs. Stone,” Murphy replied sincerely. “I feel better knowing Reb’s got someone watching out for her.”

Koko glared at him. “I’ve been looking out for myself for a while now, ya know.”

“No longer, Koko Kanti. Donoma Chepi look out for you now,” Donoma stated unequivocally. Her stare was equally intense and she met Koko’s blue eyes squarely.

“As long as we are together, ka’eskone,” Koko assured, shifting back to her native tongue, “I would expect no less. I may be the protector, but you have always taken care of me as well.” She cupped Donoma’s face in her hand, but the clearing of a nearby throat brought their attention back to the present and their surroundings. Koko looked at Kitty inquiringly.

“You two are cuter than two bugs in a rug,” Kitty said, though her pronouncement made Donoma’s nose crinkle up in disgust. “But I’m not altogether sure you wanna be sharing that image with some of the folks in this town.”

“I don’t rightly care what the folks in this town think, Kitty. I never have. But you’re right – they don’t deserve to share in what Donoma and I have between us.” She turned to the marshal. “You’ll let me know what you find out or if you hear anything I need to be aware of?”

“Of course, Reb… you don’t even have to ask.”

“Thanks, Murph. We’ll be in touch.”

“Come back soon,” Kitty commanded. “Big Mama and I’d love to visit more.”

“We’ll see what we can do,” Koko stated and then she and Donoma headed their horses towards the open plain, heedless of the many eyes that followed them down the street before the disappeared into the horizon. Kitty, Murphy and Big Mama watched them go before they all turned back to the saloon.

“I gots me a bad feelin’ ’bout all dis,” Mama said solemnly. “Them young’uns gots a hard road ahead of dem iff’n Old Man Washburn comes a lookin’ for ’em.”

“We’ll keep our eyes and ears out, Mama. I have a feelin’ this could get ugly for the lot of us before it’s all over.”

Murphy nodded his head in agreement. “I’m afraid you might be right there, Kitty. Now I’ve got work to do and you probably need a little more rest. Something about this whole situation’s not sitting right with me and I need to find out what it is.”

Kitty snorted. “The whole situation’s all wrong as far as I’m concerned, but I think I know what you mean. Hopefully you’ll figure it out in time.” She leaned up and kissed his grizzled cheek. “I’ll see you later, Stephen.” Then she and Big Mama headed indoors. Murphy walked back down towards his office, letting his mind run over the facts he had, trying to place what was bothering him about the whole scenario. Something just didn’t make sense.

************

“So what did you think of your first trip into white man’s world, ka’eskone?” Koko asked later that evening when they were curled up together snugly in their cabin home.

“I think it is very loud, and I am glad I do not have to live there all the time. It would make my head hurt incessantly.” She hesitated. “Perhaps that is why so many of them are so cranky – they must be in constant pain to be forced to live so.”

“I suppose it is a possibility, Donoma, though I believe much of it is learned behavior. We do the same thing… just not to the same degree.” Donoma cocked her head in question. “There are tribes we go to war with simply because we have been taught that they are the enemy.”

“Are you saying we are like the white man, Koko Kanti?”

“Oh no, ka’eskone. We are very different from the white man in many ways… in most ways, if the truth be known. We live differently, think differently, believe differently. But there are similarities as well. I just do not think that the similarities will ever be enough to overcome the differences until men learn to see them first. And I do not think that will happen in our lifetimes… if at all.”

“Is that not a pessimistic view of the world, warrior?”

“I do not believe it is, ka’eskone. It is an honest one. The world would be a much different place if we did not see skin color or gender or belief before we saw human being. But always it has been this way – we see what is different and we exploit what is perceived to be weakness. In the white culture that means conversion to their way of thinking and destruction of anything that does not fit their mold of society.”

“So it is all right that I did not particularly care for the white man’s world? Now do not misunderstand… I was glad for the chance to meet Miss Kitty and Big Mama and Stephen Murphy. But I did not care for the staring we endured. It was unnerving.”

Koko smiled, and gently stroked Donoma’s back, feeling her relax into the light touch. “Would you like to know the ironic part of that, ka’eskone? The ones doing the staring were more unnerved than you were – hence the reason for their staring. They were trying to figure you out without looking you in the eye. They are certain you could hex them if they did so.”

Donoma tilted her head up to look at Koko incredulously. “If I could do that, Koko, we would rule the world and the white man’s influence would not be so widespread.”

Koko laughed at the seriousness with which Donoma delivered her decree and Donoma was quick to join in the merriment. “So true, ka’eskone… but what would we do with the world?”

“We tried that once, as I recall; did not really care for it then either.” Then she blinked and looked at Koko in confusion. “What did I just say?”

“Nothing I can disagree with at the moment.” Koko blew out a thoughtful breath. “I thought they were simply strange dreams.”

“Perhaps they are, warrior. They just seem so real sometimes.” They gazed at one another for several heartbeats before Donoma blinked and put her head back down over Koko’s heartbeat. “I suppose this is something we will need to talk about.”

“Perhaps,” Koko conceded. “But it will come in our way and in a time of our choosing. Until then, I think it is safe to say we have shared many lives together. Consequently, it could be one reason behind my warrior aptitude and your gift of sight.”

“It would go a long way to explaining much. Do you believe we are destined then?”

Koko thought about the question, giving it due deliberation. “I believe we are meant for one another, but that we make the choice to allow it to happen. Had I not ended up in the winter encampment, we would still be separated by my misguided choice. I can honestly say I would have stayed alone, though. There would have been no one else in my life.”

“Mine either, warrior. I would have lived alone by choice. So maybe it is a little of both – choice and destiny.”

Koko tightened her embrace and kissed the top of the blonde head tucked under her chin. “I am glad we made the choice to embrace our destiny then, ka’eskone. I am very happy.”

“As am I, warrior mine… as am I.”

************

It was slow going across the prairie. The spring rains had made everything muddy and the horses weren’t terribly thrilled having to traverse through it constantly. It was wearing on both horse and rider and it caused Riggins to call for an early halt. Washburn immediately looked to him for an explanation.

“There’s no point in traveling until we’re all ready to drop, boss,” Riggins said patiently. “We have all the time we need to get there and take care of Stone. But it’d be in our best interests to make sure we all get there. The horses are tired and we’ve made good progress. We’ll head out again early tomorrow morning.”

“Maybe we should wait until a little later in the day when things have had a chance to dry out a bit more,” acknowledging the wisdom of Riggins’ decision without actually having to say so.

“We’ll see how it looks in the morning, boss. You may be right,” knowing it would make little difference but not seeing a reason to point that out to Washburn at the moment. It’d been a lot of years since Mordecai Washburn had ridden any sort of trail that didn’t end with him in his own comfortable bed at night, and Riggins figured he would learn as they went.

They staked their horses a short distance from themselves, allowing plenty of space between them so there was plenty of grass for each animal. Then they spread out into a circle, clearing a bit in the center to set up a firepit and placing their bedrolls around it. After that, it was a matter of waiting until they could sleep to pass the time until the could hit the trail again.

************

Murphy sat in his office, thinking over what Ginger had shared with him, Reb and the Colonel the day before. Something about what she had said didn’t make much sense. She indicated that men in general and soldiers in particular had a tendency to spill secrets when in the presence of Kitty’s girls. And while he had no doubt that it was true, what she had shared with them hadn’t been much of a secret.

He let his mind review what Ginger had said.

“They were out looking for horses under orders, but Leroy was looking for more. At least that is what the soldiers that were traveling with him believed.”

“But what was he looking for?” Ginger crinkled her forehead. Spencer sighed. “What was Leroy looking for aside from the horses? He was only under orders to find horses.”

Ginger shrugged. “I dunno. They haven’t said. Just that he seemed to have his own agenda. I got the feeling they thought it had something to do with Black.”

“But you don’t know for certain.”

“No. It’s not like I can force them to share… especially when they talk in their sleep.”

Spencer leaned back in his chair. The information was less revealing than he had hoped for. A look at Murphy and Stone showed nothing at all in their expressions, and Spencer wondered if they were as frustrated as he felt. He blew out a breath and excused himself, citing a need to get back to the fort to let Mordecai Washburn know of the death of his eldest son.

Murphy came back to the present with a sigh. He was convinced Ginger knew more than she was telling. The question was – who was she hiding the information from… him, Reb or Spencer. He looked at the clock on the wall, surprised to see it was nearly lunch time. He decided to take a walk back down to the saloon. Talking to Kitty and Big Mama might help clear his mind; it might at least give him a place to start finding out what Ginger really knew.

He walked slowly down the sidewalk, greeting the shopkeepers and merchants along the way. Several of them asked after Reb and Donoma, but as far as he could tell, it was mostly benign curiosity. None of the old biddies bothered him, making it a point to pass on the opposite side of the street. Murphy just chuckled as did most of the men he spoke to.

Finally, he reached the saloon and walked around to the back, knocking on the door and waiting for Big Mama to invite him in. He doffed his hat and took a seat at her table at her beckoning, folding his hands and waiting for her to put a plate of food in front of him. Then he still waited for her to join him. Instead she motioned to him to eat.

“Ya knows I cain’t stop in de middle ob lunch, Marshal. Wha’s on ya min’?”

Kitty walked in about then, brushing a kiss to Murphy’s temple and accepting a plate of food from Big Mama. She took a seat and picked up a fork, digging in and waiting for Murphy to speak.

“You both know I talked to Ginger yesterday, but I got the feeling she wasn’t completely honest with me. But I don’t know if she didn’t want to talk to me or if was Reb and Spence she was uncomfortable with.”

“Maybe you should ask her, Stephen. I don’t think you’re the one she’s uncomfortable with.”

He sighed and grabbed his own fork, chewing several mouthfuls thoughtfully before taking a sip of coffee. “Will you ask her, Kitty? I think she will be honest with you, and I really do think she knows more than she was willing to share.”

“I’ll see what I can find out, Stephen, but I’m not going to force her to share if she doesn’t want to. We hear a lot in this line of work – not all of it’s pleasant.”

“I know, Kitty. But I think this is important.”

Kitty nodded. “I’ll do my best and let you know when I hear something.” She got up and took her empty plate to the sink, washing it clean before returning upstairs. Murphy watched her go, then turned his attention back to Big Mama. He arched an eyebrow at her, but she just shook her head and went back to cooking. He finished his food without another word, then cleaned up, kissed Mama’s cheek and headed back to his office. There was still work to do.
Chapter XXXVIII
“You have been very quiet, ka’eskone. Is something troubling you?”

“I am somewhat confused, Koko. I do not understand why Big Mama’s language is so different from everyone else’s… even mine… nor do I comprehend how her skin became so dark. None of the People I have ever seen have had skin as dark as hers is.”

Koko smiled, recalling her own first reaction to Big Mama… and everything that followed that meeting. “Big Mama is a runaway slave, Donoma. Her Nahko’e’s Nahko’e was brought to this country on a slave ship from somewhere very far away. Because she was born a slave, she was never allowed to learn how to read and write. It was considered a crime for her to do so.”

“That is terrible, warrior mine. Who would make such a rule?”

“The same men who would try to force the People onto reservations. Those who see us as less than them… less than human.”

“Why? Who are they to judge? Who are they to make such decisions for anyone?”

Koko shook her head. “I do not know, ka’eskone. I only know that they do.”

“So has she learned to read since she ran away from those who would make her a slave?”

“A little,” Koko replied with a soft smile. “It is very difficult for her. But her sons Elijah and Thomas both learned. They went back east to go to school.”

“Did you teach them, Koko Kanti? Did you teach Big Mama’s sons to read and write the white man’s tongue – as Rae’l did for me?”

“I did, ka’eskone. I felt they deserved the opportunity to be more than they were being allowed and they did well. She is hoping for their soon return. They will have better opportunities here – despite the bigotry that is prevalent. It is apparently much worse to the east. I tried teaching Big Mama as well, but it was very slow going for her and that made it frustrating. Besides, as she put it, it took too much time away from her work and she needs the money she makes at the saloon to support herself.”

“Has she no warrior of her own to protect her? Or no advisor to look after her interests?”

“She had a husband – he was unable to get away when she escaped from slavery. She has no idea if he still lives.”

“That is terrible, warrior mine. Such a heavy burden to bear.”

“Yes, as we both know from experience. I would not wish that sort of separation on anyone. Perhaps in time her man will return to her. And if not, her sons should return to her soon. That will be a happy day for her.”

“As will our return to the People for Litonya and Takoda, no matter how brief the visit.”

Donoma’s wording made Koko’s eyes widen and she turned to look at her expression, which remained serene. “You have been thinking?” she finally asked.

Donoma shrugged. “A little. I am not convinced it would be in the best interests of the People for us to return to them on a permanent basis. As you have said, until and unless you retire, there will always be those who will hunt you down to avoid their own capture. And even then, as long as we remain in the area, there is always a chance someone will bring their fight with you to them.”

“That is all very true, ka’eskone. What would you propose?”

“I do not know yet, warrior. I do like the home you have created here….” Donoma let her thoughts trail off pensively. Koko picked up her sentence easily.

“But, it is still too close to the white man’s civilization to be truly safe for us.”

“Yes… exactly. And as much as I would like to remain for now, I do not believe it would ultimately satisfy either of us to stay here for an indefinite length of time.”

“So where does that leave us?” Koko had already come to her own conclusions, but she was enjoying listening to Donoma think aloud. The horses ambled on as the sun continued moving overhead, the spring breeze keeping it on the cool side of comfortable.

“I think that depends on us, warrior. Do we want to put down roots here? Move somewhere else? Go back to the People? Or strike out on our own… go somewhere no one would find us – somewhere that even the People do not know of? There are many choices for us to consider.”

“What would you like to do, ka’eskone? Not what you think I want or what would make the People or Kitty or anyone else we know happy, but you.”

Donoma bit her lip thoughtfully as she deliberated the choices she had already laid out for Koko. “What I would like,” she said after a few moments of silent riding, “is the ability to see the outcome of each choice.” She smiled ruefully at Koko who gave her a sympathetic expression in return. “I know… that is not the way it works, but it does not keep me from wishing it was so.”

“It would be nice. But it does not change the fact that this is something we need to decide for ourselves without guidance.”

“How long should we remain here, Koko?”

“We move at our own whim, Donoma. The only thing keeping us here is us. However,” she added, “I think it is safe to say that if Mordecai Washburn is coming into town to do more than retrieve Reuben’s body – if he is coming to exact revenge for whatever injustice he believes has been perpetrated against his family – he will not let it go without a fight. If we do not face him here, he will follow us.”

Donoma sighed. She had expected as much, but hearing it said brought a whole new level of reality. “Then we need to deal with Washburn before we make any sort of decision about the future. I have no desire to have that kind of threat hanging over us for the remainder of our lives.”

“Nor do I, ka’eskone. We will hope Washburn is not as stupid as his sons, but I do not hold out much hope for that. Especially if they were doing something illegal.”

“You believe that they are, though.”

“Yes – it is the only thing that makes sense. Why else would they be so insistent that I was? Usually those who accuse have something to hide themselves.”

“I hope that this is over with quickly then. I have no desire to live under this cloud any longer than is absolutely necessary. I am ready to simply live my life with you.”

Koko’s smile was wide and genuine. “As am I, Donoma.” Then silence fell as they continued their journey home.

************

“You are sure of this Takoda?” Odahingum asked much later – after they had spoken at length with Hassun. “You are aware that we are more than half a moon’s travel from the white man’s world where Koko Kanti and Donoma Chepi have been living? That it will have been a full moon from the time Koko Kanti sent him to us that Hassun returns to them? What good can it do to put our clan in danger by accompanying him, Takoda?”

The shaman shook his head. “I cannot say for certain, my friend. I only know what the Great Spirit shows me.”

The chieftain huffed. “It would be nice if for once the Great Spirit would speak plainly instead of with vague signs and warnings. Surely it would be easier for him as well.”

Takoda snorted. “You sound much like my nahtona, Odahingum. She does not care for the vagueness nor the interpretations she is left to make from the visions she is given. She feels straightforwardness would be much more effective.”

“I tend to agree,” Odahingum said solemnly.

“So do I,” Takoda confessed. “But we must work with those things we are given.”

“And you feel we should move the People back towards the white man’s territory instead of continuing on towards the summer camp?”

Takoda shook his head. “I cannot say with certainty, Odahingum. I think it might be best if we split the tribe – with some of the warriors and all the women and children continuing on to the summer camp. The rest could accompany Hassun back to the town to aid Koko and Donoma in whatever challenge the Great Spirit is sending their way.”

“You believe this to be for the best? Even with the amount of time and travel involved for all parties?”

“I believe I was given the vision for a reason, but I am not convinced of anything yet. I only know that we must do something, for if we do nothing, the consequence could be dire for Donoma and Koko.”

“Could be? Then you are unsure?”

“I am unsure,” Takoda confirmed. “Nothing is clear and yet the feeling that the vision gives me is ominous… very disturbing.”

“You do not believe they will survive without our assistance?”

Takoda shrugged, growing more and more frustrated. He had told Odahingum all he saw and yet the chief still questioned him. “I do not know, Odahingum. All that is clear is that they are in imminent danger. The rest…?” He shrugged again.

Odahingum thought about Takoda’s words. “Very well. I will instruct a small party of warriors to accompany Hassun. Traveling by horseback, it should not take them as much time to reach Koko and Donoma as it would on foot. With luck, the warriors will arrive in plenty of time to be of some use to prevent whatever it is that threatens Koko Kanti and Donoma Chepi.”

“Thank you, Odahingum. I believe that is a wise choice.”

Odahingum sighed. “I hope so, Takoda… for all our sakes.”

************

“Mr. Washburn?” Mordecai looked up into the face of the youngest cowboy along on this trip. He reminded the old man a little of his sons but it didn’t garner him any sympathy. Washburn nodded and gestured for the young man to continue.

“I was just wondering how long we expect to be on the trail.”

Washburn stared at the cowboy a while longer, smirking when he started to fidget under his penetrating gaze. “What’s the matter, boy? You got a hot date back at the ranch house I need to know about? Or maybe you’re looking forward to screwing some of those whores in town?”

“Yessir… something like that.”

“Well, keep it in your pants, boy. It’s gonna take us the better part of a week before we get to town. And then we’ve got business to attend to once we get there. There won’t be screwing of any kind until Reb Stone is dead by my hand. You got it?”

The cowboy swallowed hard. “Yessir,” the kid replied before swallowing again and turning to walk away from Washburn as rapidly as he could manage without actually running. Mordecai watched him go with a smirk on his face. Riggins walked over chuckling and squatted across the fire from Washburn. Mordecai arched an eyebrow at him.

“Sorry, boss. That was funny. In fairness, Harry’s a good cowboy… as hardworking as they come, but he’s young. Doesn’t always think with his big head.”

“He’s lucky I remember being that young and stupid once. But remind him what happens to stupid cowboys.”

“Will do, boss.” Riggins cleared his throat. “Looks like we’ve got more bad weather coming in. We gonna push through it or try to wait it out?”

“We’ll see how it looks in the morning, but I wanna push through as soon as possible. It’s already going to be a week getting there without delays and I don’t want this to take any longer than necessary. Stone deserves to be punished for what she did to my family and I intend to make her pay.”

“And if she’s not there?”

“In town? I don’t expect her to be. According to what the boys said and my current sources, she no longer lives there. She only visits occasionally to speak to the marshal and visit Kitty,” Washburn spat with revulsion. “Otherwise she is out chasing outlaws or living in her little log cabin. All we have to do is wait for her to come to us.”

“So we’re not gonna chase her down?”

“Hell, no! What would be the advantage to that? We can set up an ambush and wait for her to come to us. Then,” he took aim and pulled an imaginary trigger. “She dies.. but *only* at my hand. Make sure the men understand that – they are there to contain her, but the killing shot is mine alone.”

“All right, boss. I’ll take care of it.”

“See that you do, Riggins. I don’t want any rash misunderstandings on that point. Because someone will pay for their disobedience if anyone other than me kills Stone. She owes me, and I’m going to collect – preferably slowly and painfully.”

“Yessir, boss.”

“Good. Now get out of here and leave me to my peace. We start out at daylight tomorrow if the weather is good.”

“And if it’s not?”

“We’ll decide in the morning.” Riggins nodded his head but didn’t say another word. Instead, he rose and headed back to his own bedroll, hoping the storm that was coming held off until the morning. A good night’s sleep would be appreciated. Tomorrow would bring new challenges to face – Riggins just wanted a bit of decent rest before being forced to meet them.

************

It had been slow all evening and Kitty had decided to call it a night. She gestured to Benny who nodded his understanding, then took Ginger by the hand and led her upstairs to her room. The other girls just watched, knowing the two women had a different relationship with one another than they shared with the rest of them. Besides, Kitty had been jumpy all evening – with a little luck, Ginger would be able to get her to relax.

Ginger followed Kitty into her room and waited for the older woman to shut the door before turning on her. “All right, Kitty… what’s up? You’ve been twitchier than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, and I don’t think it’s got anything to do with what you and I normally do when we come up here together early like this either.”

Kitty grimaced. “You’re right, though there may be some of that later,” she added with a rakish grin. Then her expression fell and she sighed. “What do you really know about the Washburns and what is goin’ on? Stephen is convinced you know more than you were willin’ to share with him and the others.”

“So you’re doin’ the Marshal’s dirty work now?” Ginger sneered, then immediately felt remorse at the hurt look that passed swiftly over Kitty’s face. “I’m sorry, Kit. I’m tired and this whole situation has just creeped me out, ya know?”

“No, I don’t, so why don’t you tell me so I will?”

“The Washburns were horse thieves – head of a gang of ’em from what I could gather – only they were doin’ it legally… skimmin’ the best of them from the Army before the Army got ahold of ’em.”

Kitty blinked rapidly as the words spilled forth from Ginger’s lips. “What?? How do you know this, Ging? And why didn’t you tell the Marshal when he asked?”

“My corporal, Max?” waiting for Kitty to nod her head in recognition. “He went out a lot with them huntin’ for new herds. He said not near the horses they found ever made it into the Army corral. Said that somehow they always seemed to lose the best part of the herd a day or two out from the post to fellas who didn’t seem to disturb whoever was on watch, and that generally, Leroy was the one watching when it happened.”

“And he didn’t feel the need to bring it up to someone? You didn’t think you should share this with Stephen… or me?”

“Who was he gonna bring it up to, Kitty? Leroy was his commanding officer and Reuben was the next up in the chain of command. That’s sorta like cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

Kitty nodded in understanding. “Okay, I can accept that, but then why not tell Stephen?” coming back to part of her original question. “And why involve Reb? That last seems kinda like poking a bear with a stick – you know there’s gonna be a bad reaction.”

Ginger shrugged. “That I don’t know, but I’m thinkin’ she messed up their little operation more’n once by pickin’ up certain outlaws. Somebody had to move them horses once they left the Army’s care and odds are it wasn’t law-abidin’ citizens.”

Kitty stared at Ginger in amazement. “How’d you figure all that out?”

“Talkin’ to the Marshal got me to thinkin’. A lot of it is just speculatin’ on my part at the moment, but it seems to sorta make sense.”

“So why haven’t you talked to the Marshal about this, Ginger?” Kitty asked in a fierce whisper, not wanting her voice to carry with her upset. “Why didn’t you tell him this the other day when he and Reb were sitting right there waiting for you to tell them all this??”

Ginger turned burning eyes to Kitty. “Because the Colonel was sitting there with them. And I don’t know him well enough to assume his guilt or innocence one way or the other. I was waiting for the Marshal to come see you so I could talk to him up here without raising suspicions!”

Kitty’s ire calmed considerably with Ginger’s explanation and she moved forward to take the other woman in a hug. “All right, sweetheart… I’m sorry. I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you because of this… God knows. I just don’t want to see anything happen to Reb either and I don’t think Washburn’s gonna let this lie this time.”

“Probably not,” Ginger agreed, holding on to Kitty and tucking her head beneath the other woman’s chin absorbing the comfort she offered. “I got the feeling from Max that the old man was the one running things, so I’ll bet he’ll be here as quick as he can to take care of stuff.” A rumble of thunder shimmied through the air. “With any luck, it’ll take him a few extra days with this weather.”

“And meanwhile we can make some plans of our own. But first,” leading Ginger to her bed, “we need some rest. We’ll worry about the rest tomorrow – there’s nothing we can do til then without raisin’ suspicions anyway.”

“Nothin’?” Ginger asked with a wicked twinkle as she stripped down to her skivvies.

Kitty laughed and did the same, then blew out the lantern before crawling into bed behind her.
Chapter XXXIX
“You seem restless tonight, ka’eskone,” Koko commented several days later. “Is something wrong?”

“I do not know, warrior. It is simply… I have never felt like this before.”

“Getting used to being in one place is very different from what you have known all your life.”

“Yes, it is. Even winter camp is not like this. I think the weather may be part of the problem. I do not remember seeing so much rain in so short a period of time. I have never spent so much time indoors when I was not ministering to the sick.”

“Would you like me to be sick, ka’eskone, so you have something productive to do with your time?”

“No! If I never have to use those particular skills on you ever again, it will be too soon for me. I have done more than my share of caring for you that way and though I do not begrudge any of the time we spent together, I hate to see you suffer. Besides,” she added with an impish twinkle in her green eyes, “you were always my worst patient.”

Blue eyes widened and Koko’s full bottom lip stuck out in what threatened to become a full-fledged pout. “Me?” she asked with mock offense. “How can you say that? I have always been the epitome of what a model patient should be.” Donoma couldn’t resist the impulse and soon she was shaking with laughter, though she covered her mouth to keep the giggles from escaping. Koko glared and crossed her arms over her chest. “You are mocking me.”

“No, Nutta. I am telling you the truth. Do you not remember the first sickness you had after you and Rae’l came to the People?” Koko held Donoma’s eyes, but she couldn’t stop the blush that followed the question. Donoma smiled. “I see that you do.”

************

It had been a dare and Koko had never been one to refuse a dare. It had been coming on to winter – not yet freezing, but well beyond the warmth of summer. Despite her acceptance into the tribe by Takoda and Odahingum, Koko was still the new kid and in some things, she still had a lot to prove to her peers.

This particular autumn day, the young warriors were out near a tributary whose origin they were unaware of. All they knew was that the water was chilly, even in the heat of mid-summer, so now it was downright frigid. The challenge was to swim the width of the river and back again – naked

The boys had thought to play a practical joke on Koko, stealing her clothes and forcing her to return to the encampment in nothing but her skin. Koko and a few of the others would swim while the rest took her clothes. What they had not counted on was the fierceness of Donoma Chepi or the shrillness of her voice when they approached her.

The swimmers were more than halfway across the water when Donoma’s first cry rang out. Without hesitation, Koko turned back and headed for shore. Honaw, seeing her action, turned to follow her, knowing there had to be a good reason for Donoma to scream and an even better one for Koko to give up the challenge to take care of it.

She stepped onto shore, naked as the day she was born, backlit by the sun which highlighted the strength of her young body and the gentle curves she was only just beginning to develop. The boys who had caused Donoma’s fit, stepped away from Donoma, moving them out of Koko’s immediate reach. They couldn’t stop staring at Koko, though, and she felt her hackles rise.

Donoma ran to her, jumping into her arms and wrapping tiny arms around Koko’s neck. Koko completed the embrace without taking her eyes from the boys that caused the reaction.

“Do you not have somewhere else you need to be?” she growled, blue eyes blazing at them. “Where is your honor, that you terrorize a five-year-old child?”

“It had nothing to do with her,” the bravest among them stated.

“I see,” Koko ground out. “So she was screaming because…?”

“How should I know?” the boy answered diffidently with a shrug, though his eyes darted from side to side. “Maybe she just likes the attention she gets from you when she does.”

Koko’s eyes narrowed and she set Donoma gently onto the ground. “Stay with Honaw, ka’eskone. I will be right back.” Before Donoma could move, Koko had leaped on the interloper and started pounding him into the ground. Some of his mates jumped in to help but found themselves the recipients of their own blows, courtesy of Honaw and his compatriots.

Unfortunately, in the melee, Koko lost sight of the reason Donoma had been so vocal and while she and the others were busy, one boy snuck out of the fighting and gathered up her clothing and threw it in the water. Donoma gave chase, but her legs were too short and she wasn’t fast enough. She did manage to kick him in the shins after the deed was done – the boy couldn’t resist the opportunity to laugh and gloat over his perceived victory. His howl of pain cut through the grunting and groaning and everyone stopped fighting at the sound.

He raised a hand to Donoma who stared back at him without flinching, hands on her hips.

“Do not be stupid,” Keezheekoni cut in. “The punishment you’d receive for completing that action would be far greater than any satisfaction you might garner from it.”

The boy snorted and looked around nervously, realizing that even his cohorts’ expressions contained a measure of disgust. His eyes met Koko’s and he flinched at the raw fury directed towards him. He dropped his hand and stepped away from Donoma.

“It does not matter,” he sneered. “We won,” looking back at the water that was gently pulling Koko’s clothing downstream.

Koko snarled, then stiff-armed him before she jumped back into the frigid water to retrieve her clothes. It was a shock to her overly warm system, the fight having chased away any residual chill, but she kept gamely at it until everything had been recovered.

By the time she reached the shore again, her friends were dressed and Honaw extended a hand to help her out. She accepted his hand, her water-laden clothes making it difficult to say the least. The rest of the pack had moved some distance away, separate yet still close by. Koko spared them a glowering glance, then her attention was taken by Donoma.

“Are you all right, Koko Kanti?”

“I am fine, ka’eskone. I am just a little wet.”

Donoma allowed her green eyes to track the length of Koko’s body, lingering on the dripping bundle of leather she held in one hand and the wet hair that ran rivulets of water down her back. She raised an eyebrow and Koko had to bite her lip to keep from commenting on the cute factor Donoma had going on with that attempt at a grown-up look.

“If that is a little, warrior, I do not want to know what very wet is. I would drown.”

“I would not allow that to happen, Donoma. Who would be my warrior advisor then?”

A brisk wind blew across the Plains and Koko couldn’t stop the involuntary shiver that ghosted through her body. She looked down sadly at her wet garments, then with a shrug, wrung them out as best as she was able. Honaw stepped up beside her to help, and soon they went from sopping to merely damp. Koko slipped them on with a grimace and together, they all headed for home.

Koko was shaking with chills long before they arrived and only the clenching of her jaw kept her teeth from chattering. When they reached the encampment, Koko went immediately to her own home and Donoma Chepi followed without question. The rest went to their own fires, much more subdued than when they left.

The elder and other adults wondered what had happened, but figured they would soon learn the truth. Rachel left her place at Litonya’s fire and slowly limped back to her own dwelling, curious to hear Koko’s side of whatever story had obviously taken place.

Koko stripped off her wet clothing as soon as she was inside and Donoma struggled to awkwardly wrap the warmest fur around her chilled body. Koko was just laying down on her pallet when Rachel stepped through the opening. “Koko Kanti?”

“I am all right, Nahko’e. Just a little cold,” which was followed by a tremendous sneeze. Rachel reached out and put a cool hand on Koko’s forehead.

“Koko, what happened? You are burning up.” But Koko didn’t answer, having already dozed off as renewed warmth soaked into her bones. Rachel turned to Donoma. “What happened out there, Donoma?” Rachel asked softly, concern coloring her tone. And Donoma told her the unvarnished truth. Before she was done, Rachel was growling and her blue eyes were sparking flames.

When Donoma finished, she looked at Rachel expectantly. “I will help you care for Koko Kanti, Rae’l. It is my place as her advisor.”

“It will be a lot of unpleasant work, Donoma. When Koko Kanti is ill, everyone is miserable.” Donoma cocked her head thoughtfully.

“Why?”

Rachel laughed at the seriousness of the question. “Because she has much of her Neho’e in her and Honiahaka, for all his positive attributes was not a patient man, especially where sickness was concerned.”

“All the more reason you will need my help. And if you require further assistance, I am certain my Nahko’e will be glad to do so.”

“Thank you, Donoma Chepi,” Rachel accepted graciously. “I welcome your aid in my hour of need.” Donoma’s chest swelled with pride at the formality of Rachel’s wording. It meant she took Donoma’s offer seriously and would allow her to take care of Koko to the best of her ability… though in fairness, Rachel didn’t expect Donoma to provide much help. After all, how much could a five-year-old really do?

************

“You caught my Nahko’e completely by surprise – did you know that? She never expected anyone to be able to put up with me, especially not a child as young as you were. I do not think she understood the bond that was between us even then.”

“Why would she, warrior mine? We did not understand it until very recently. But even then I understood you were doing your best not to make things too difficult for me.”

“Did you really?

“Oh yes… though it does not relieve you of the title of worst patient.” Donoma bit her lip to keep from laughing when Koko poked her lip out in a pout. “Oh, Nutta… I understood why. You tolerated enforced inactivity then even less than I do now.”

“This is true. Those were a few very long days for me.”

“For me as well, warrior – although that is when my Neho’e discovered my gift for healing as well as sight.”

“Do you enjoy it?” Koko asked abruptly. Donoma’s eyes widened in question and Koko shook her head. “Healing… do you enjoy healing?”

“Usually yes. I like the feeling of accomplishment knowing my efforts made a difference in someone’s well-being. I hate when I cannot heal… when someone suffers from my lack of knowledge or skill. But mostly I hated it when you were the one who was hurt or suffering.”

“I did not do so very often.”

“For which fact I am very thankful. Though except for that last episode, the first was the most difficult for me.”

“Was I really so difficult?”

“No, warrior. I was so young.”

“Yes, you were, ka’eskone. And I was so proud of you.”

Donoma smiled. “I was pretty proud of me too.”

************

Donoma tended patiently to Koko, despite Koko’s irritation and complaining – wiping her brow, feeding her broth, reading to her in a slow, halting effort while Rachel listened and patiently corrected her. Together they bathed Koko and kept her dry and after three days, her fever broke. Rachel and Donoma got Koko cleaned up, then Rachel took the dirty bedding and clothes out to scrub them and set them to dry. When she returned, she smiled at the sight that met her tired eyes.

Donoma lay tucked into Koko’s body, both of them sleeping soundly. Rachel covered them both, then stepped back outside to call Takoda and Litonya to see. It was a memory all of them would treasure for years to come.

************

“I remember waking up with you – it made me feel like the strong protector I wanted to be. It simply reinforced the promise I made to you.”

“Did it?”

“Oh yes… you were so small and asleep you are much less formidable. I do not think you realize the sheer force of your personality… even then you were able to make people cower and tremble with a look. Personally, I was very entertained by the reaction of the boys after the showdown at the river that day.”

“They were much more respectful, but it did not get me included.”

“Nothing would have done that, ka’eskone. They simply did not know how to deal with someone who was their better, so it was easiest just to avoid that sort of interaction with you.”

“That does not make it hurt any less,” Donoma acknowledged softly.

Koko wrapped Donoma in a full body hug. “I know, ka’eskone. But you can take comfort from the fact that now they seek you out – for both your friendship and your counsel.”

“I know, but it does not make the hurt I felt as a child lessen. I am so glad you were there.”

“As am I, Donoma. But I will confess I am glad to know we can now count on those who once shunned you. Despite the pain I felt leaving you, I did take comfort knowing the rest would guard and protect you when I no longer could.” She paused. “I would not mind having them here now, in point of fact.” Donoma shifted until she could look into Koko’s face.

“What troubles you, warrior?”

“Aside from the fact I do not trust Washburn? Not much. I suspect he is coming to cause trouble and will bring a number of compatriots with him to ensure his success. I would feel better if some of the People’s warriors were here to back me up.”

“Why did you not instruct Hassun to bring the warriors back with him?”

“Because my first concern had to be for the well-being of the People and this fight is personal. It would have been irresponsible for me to have made such a request, especially considering my recent history with the People.”

“As far as they are concerned, we are joined, Koko Kanti. They would come for that reason alone – but warrior, you have to know they would come for you as well if you asked.”

“I know, ka’eskone. I would have asked for your sake, but you have proven yourself a warrior in your own right. I trust you to watch my back.”

“Good thing,” Donoma replied. “Although I would feel better if there were more than just us.”

“We will work it out, ka’eskone. And when the time comes, we will stand together and that is the most important thing. Now come,” leading Donoma to their big bed. “Let us see if we can work out the restlessness you seem to have developed.”

Donoma smiled. “I am certain if we work together we can come up with an equitable solution.”

Koko threw back her head and laughed – a sound which soon transmuted into a moan as Donoma took control of the situation and started undressing Koko with deliberate intent. Then their focus was all about one another and the night passed into day without them even noticing.

************

“Will they make it in time?” Odahingum asked Takoda several days after the warriors had departed with Hassun. He had been more than anxious to return despite his fatigue and he had turned in as soon as his report had been made to catch as much rest as he could before beginning the arduous journey back to town early the following morning. It was then that the warriors had decided who would go and who would remain, but by the time Hassun was ready, so was the contingent of warriors that would accompany him.

“I do not know, my friend. The Great Spirit has been less than communicative of late. I am coming to the conclusion that he has less knowledge of Koko and Donoma than he is willing to admit.”

Odahingum chuckled. “I know how he feels. I believe the only two who understand those two are the two of them. But I am glad they have each other. They are capable of so much together.” He paused then turned his face to Takoda. “Perhaps that is why he leaves them to themselves so much – they are capable.”

“Perhaps, but it would be nice if he would let the rest of us know. I would have less gray.”

Now Odahingum laughed. “Where is the challenge in that?”

Takoda snorted. “Like life is not challenge enough. I would like to believe they will be able to make a difference, but it remains to be seen. You will know as soon as I do, Odahingum. This I promise you.”

Odahingum nodded. “Very well, my friend. I will accept your word and hope that you are correct in your assessment.” He shook his head and cleared his throat. “When did we get so old that we now sit and wait for news instead of leading the warriors to battle?”

“I think we blinked, Chief. Because it was not at all slow in coming.”

“At least we have capable leaders in those coming behind. That gives me a measure of peace.”

“Me as well.” Then their attention turned back to the fire, hoping it would give them answers.
Chapter XL
“How close are we, Hassun?”

“We have made good time, Honaw. If I have figured correctly, we will reach Reb Stone’s home sometime around mid afternoon tomorrow.”

“I thought you said it would take close to half a moon,” Keez commented as he took his place around the fire pit. “It has only been just over a quarter.”

“It took me half a moon to find the People because you had deviated from the path I was instructed to follow to find you. We are going directly to Stone’s place because I am aware of exactly where it is and how to get there. Besides, we have been riding a little longer every day than would be considered normal. That has cut time off our return trip as well.”

“So once we reach Koko Kanti’s, then what?”

Hassun shrugged. “That will be up to her. She will probably send me back to town to await further developments. I am certain your presence will take her by surprise unless Donoma Chepi has been gifted with the foreknowledge of your coming.”

“It is possible, but not likely,” Keez commented. “From my observation, the Great Spirit is very sparing about sharing too much information ahead of time.”

Honaw snorted. “Neho’e believes it is the Great Spirit’s way of allowing us to think for ourselves.”

“You do not think so?”

“I think if he had all the answers he would find a way to share them that would still allow us to choose our path.”

“Crisis of faith, Honaw?”

“No, frustration with it.” He shook his head to clear it. “It does not matter. I am certain we will find the answers we need when we need them. It would just be nice to know that Koko and Donoma will find some sort of peace and happiness in this life… even if only for a little while. It seems they have already been through enough.”

“Perhaps, but it has made them a formidable foe to tangle with,” Hassun assured them. “I do not think Mordecai Washburn is going to be capable of defeating them, no matter the force he brings with him. They have something beyond his understanding, and he does not know how to beat that.”

Honaw shook his head, but returned his gaze to the flame. “I hope you are right, Hassun… for all our sakes.”

************

“Boss, we should be in town by dusk tomorrow.”

“‘Bout damnable time!” Washburn growled at the trail boss Riggins. “Goddamn trip has already taken more’n twice as long as it should have!” Due to inclement weather, what should have been a week’s trek across the prairie had turned into sixteen days of slogging across mud-slicked ground. They had sat in makeshift tents as many days as they had spent moving and now men and horses were exhausted beyond reasonable expectation. “I hope to God that fucking abomination isn’t in town when we arrive. The way everyone feels at the moment, I’m not sure we could rightly defeat her, and I plan to crush the life out of her slowly… with my bare hands.”

Riggins’ eyes widened at the venom in Washburn’s tone, but he simply nodded his head and said, “Yessir.”

“Tell the men they’ll have two days in town to rest and recover before we make an effort to find Stone. BUT!” the fierceness of his eyes and tone causing every hair on Riggins’ body to stand at attention. “No one is to go into the saloon or the whorehouse. I want the men rested and ready to hit the trail again. They can wait to do their drinking and celebrating until we return victorious. Make sure that is understood, Riggins. The man who disobeys will die at my hand in a manner for worse than Stone.”

“I’ll make sure they know, boss.”

Washburn grunted. “See that you do… or you’ll be first.”

Riggins nodded briskly and moved away, wondering when the hell this had seemed like a good idea.

************

“Why are we running, warrior?” Donoma asked as they packed up the last of their gear. Black and Dapples stomped impatiently, not at all happy with their return to blankets and bridles… and in Black’s case, a heavy western saddle.

“We are not running, ka’eskone,” Koko answered patiently. “We are putting the odds more in our favor. By my figuring, it took two to three days for Washburn to get the telegram explaining his son’s death. Even if he was able to leave immediately upon receipt of that telegram, it would still take Washburn a week’s travel by horseback from his ranch – that by his own son’s admission.” Koko smiled when Donoma’s eyebrow went up in mute question. “Since I have not heard from Stephen yet, it is safe to say he has not arrived yet.”

“Then why are we leaving? Will Stephen not look for us here first?”

“Yes, but he will know how to read the signs to know where to find us as well.”

“What about Washburn’s sons?”

“Apparently, his sons were glad to be away from him, despite the fact that he could still command them from a distance. Hassun said Leroy confessed in a drunken binge one night that Mordecai Washburn was one scary son of a bitch and he was glad for the distance between them.”

“So why did they continue to follow him if he was so far away? They were beyond him out here, were they not?”

“Not necessarily, ka’eskone. It is very likely if Washburn is the head of a gang stealing horses out from under the noses of the US Army, that he has spies in the town if not in the Army itself. Horse thieves make a lot of money stealing horses, but they pay a hefty price if they’re caught. Having what is practically the law in your pocket would make things that much more lucrative for everyone involved.”

“You think Stephen is a part of Washburn’s gang?”

Koko shook her head slowly. “I am not certain, ka’eskone. I do not think it is him, but someone has to be helping Washburn for him to have lasted as long as he has.”

“You think this has been going on a while?”

“At least three full cycles… since his sons came to serve together at the fort here. They approached me early on, kind of feeling me out.”

“Why did you not put a stop to it then, warrior?”

Koko shrugged. “Many reasons – mostly that I had no proof… only suspicions. And suspicions weren’t enough. There was never any evidence.”

“And there is now?”

“Now I have been accused of being a horse thief. That is proof enough for me to go looking. And everything points to the Washburns as heading up a gang of them right out of the Army itself. With the testimony of the enlisted men who were doing the dirty work, proving it will be simple.”

“And what of Washburn?”

“That depends on him, Donoma. If he collects Reuben’s body and goes home, I will let him go in peace and leave the Marshal and the Army to deal with him. If he comes after me, however, he will die at my hand. I will not let him threaten me and mine.”

“You expect him to, don’t you… come after you, I mean?”

“Yes. For whatever reason in their twisted little minds, I have always been something of a sore spot for all of them. Leroy wanted my horse; Reuben wanted my skills; Malcolm wanted to bed me and Mordecai just wants revenge.” Koko shook her head. “I have to wonder what I did in a past life to warrant such attention from the likes of them.”

Donoma grinned. “Perhaps they are the balance for us to be together.”

“Perhaps, but could you not have had some admirers of your own to help balance things out instead of leaving all the nutbreads for me”

“And who says I have not had my own set of admirers, warrior?” Donoma teased. “You were gone for five very long years. There were several warriors who took notice of me.”

Flaming blue eyes turned to Donoma in a fit of jealousy. “Who, Donoma? Who was foolish enough to take notice of you in my absence??”

“Why foolish, Koko Kanti?” Donoma asked, her own eyes blazing. “A woman likes to be noticed, even when the one she wants to see her is no longer there!”

In an instant, the burn was extinguished in Koko’s eyes and she dropped her head. “I am sorry, Donoma Chepi. I have no right….”

“You have every right, my mate. They did nothing but look, because they knew nothing would come from it. But none of them would dare to even look now. No one is anxious to die at your hand… or mine. That is the reason Washburn will never defeat us. He does not understand what he is facing when he comes up against us. You are mine and I will not let him take you from me again.”

“You know the truly sad thing about this whole business?” Koko asked as she pulled the door to the cabin shut behind them and mounted Black. Donoma looked at her from where she sat comfortably seated on Dapples’ broad back. “If they had left me out of this… if they had simply left me alone to track down and bring in outlaws for their bounty, we wouldn’t be doing this right now.”

“What I cannot understand is what precipitated this series of events. If as you say this has been going on for three full cycles, why the need to expose themselves now by accusing you? Why not continue to work in the shadows and keep you out of it?”

“I think if we learn the answer to that we will know the answer to a good many things.”

The two women headed out side by side. “So where are we going, warrior mine?”

“We need to make preparations at a couple of different hideaways I have in these parts. Then we are going to go looking for Hassun. With luck, he is not far and we will be able to meet up with him tomorrow.”

************

“How far do you think we will need to go to find Hassun, Koko? Should he not have already returned with his news from the People?”

“It depends on how long it took him to find the People, ka’eskone. I put him on the path that Honaw and Keez gave to us when they found us after our joining. But if the People have changed their path again, it would take him longer to find them. Hassun is a scout and a tracker – I believe he will be able to find them with very little problem. The real question is how long it will take him to convince them and return.”

“You think they will not believe him?”

“I think there will be some mistrust there simply because he is a tracker and scout for the white man’s Blue Coats. Only the fact that Honaw is expecting him and has spoken to him before will make his acceptance easier.”

They rode in silence for a while. Already they had placed supplies in two different hideaways and now they were headed west on the path they expected to meet Hassun on. The day was warmer and drier than many of their recent days had been and despite the reason for their travels, they were enjoying the journey and their time together.

“This is nice,” Donoma commented after the silence had gone on for a while. “I could get used to this.”

Koko reached out a hand and smiled when Donoma took it. “So could I, ka’eskone. It would be very easy to allow this to become our way of life – just you and me and the wide open plain?”

“Yes it would. It is very different from traveling with the People.”

“It is very different than anything else I have ever known.”

“It would be so easy just to keep going.”

“Soon, Donoma. As soon as we are sure things are settled with Washburn. I have always wanted to see what is beyond the rocks we visited outside the summer encampment. I would like to see the mountains the Army scouts have spoken of.”

“Tell me.”

Koko’s words were quiet, but filled with a wonder that allowed Donoma to see what Koko was describing to her. A smile crossed her face as she imagined sharing those sights with Koko.

“Why are you smiling?”

“Being with you is not reason enough?” Donoma teased. “I was thinking how nice it would be to see these things with you. They sound wonderful.”

“Come,” pulling Black to a halt and sliding from his back. “This is as nice a place to camp as any and besides, I think we’ve ridden far enough for the day. It will be dark soon and we can count the stars together.”

Donoma smiled and slid from Dapples’ back into Koko’s arms. “If it was not for the fact that Washburn is nothing but a troublemaker as far as you are concerned, I would be thankful that he gave us a reason to be out here again under the stars.”

“Me too.”

They set up camp and sat together watching the sunset as they ate, then leaning back together as the stars began to make their appearance. For a while their attention was focused up, pointing out patterns as they were made manifest in the sky.

Then Donoma shifted to look at Koko and she frowned. Koko smoothed out the furrows in her brow. “Donoma?” She shifted to her elbows to put her and Donoma nose to nose. “Ka’eskone, what is wrong?”

“Warrior, why is there a light on the ground over there?” motioning some distance from their own camp.

Koko sat up the remainder of the way and turned. She watched for some time. “It is another camp, but there are a number of people there. It could be more of the white man pushing into our territory, but I do not see any of the wagons that they normally travel with.”

“Could it be a band of outlaws?”

Koko frowned. “I suppose it could be, but Stephen did not mention anything about anyone being out here. I need to take a closer look, ka’eskone. Will you wait here for me?”

Donoma studied Koko’s face in the starlight a long moment, then she nodded. “I will, but be quick, warrior. I do not want to have to come in and save you.”

“But you would if I needed you to, would you not?”

“In a heartbeat.”

Koko leaned forward and kissed Donoma for a long moment. “Be right back,” she said when they separated. Then she disappeared into the darkness surrounding them and only Donoma’s knowledge allowed her to follow Koko’s progress towards the other camp.

Koko was not gone very long by anyone’s calculations but Donoma was counting the minutes. When Koko returned, she gave a small sigh of relief that Koko felt.

“Were you worried, ka’eskone?”

“Perhaps a little, warrior. What did you find out?”

Koko’s grin was wide and it reflected the natural light brightly. “I found out,” she said gleefully, putting her arms around Donoma’s waist, “that the odds are now in our favor.” Donoma arched a brow at her and Koko laughed aloud, albeit quietly. “That encampment is Hassun… and half the warriors of the People.”

Donoma’s eyes widened. “Really?” She scrunched her forehead. “Wait – half?”

“It looks like it.”

“So that means….”

“That means we have a much better chance to end this in our favor quickly if Washburn decides he has a bone to pick with me.” She noticed Donoma’s confused expression and smiled. “If he wants to make things personal and come after me.”

“I will pick his bone and beat him to death with it,” Donoma said somberly. Then they exchanged glances and burst into laughter. “So do the warriors know we are out here?” Koko shook her head.

“No. I figure to surprise them at dawn tomorrow.”

“So we still have the evening to ourselves?” Koko nodded and smiled when Donoma took her hand and tugged her back down to their bedroll. “Good… we still have a number of stars to chase.”

It was a moment’s peace before the coming storm.
Chapter XLI
Washburn pulled his horse to a stop in front of the tiny hotel with a sigh of relief. They had spent too damn many days on the trail and his body was aching from facing the rigors it was no longer accustomed to dealing with. He would be thrilled to see a bed with a real mattress – two and a half weeks of sleeping on the hard, muddy ground had made them all tired and miserable.

He crossed the threshold, the spurs on his boots making an obnoxious jingling sound. It brought the proprietor from the back, wiping his hands on a towel. But before he could speak, Washburn spoke up gruffly.

“How many rooms ya got?”

“Six.”

“I’ll take ’em all for me and my men. And I need a place to stable our horses,” nodding when the innkeeper motioned to the stable area out back. “What time’s supper?”

“Six.”

Washburn rolled his eyes, idly wondering if that was the only word the rotund little man in front of him had the ability to speak. Then he decided it didn’t matter – the man was of no consequence to him and if he was able to provide shelter and a decent meal at a reasonable price, so much the better. He motioned to Riggins.

“Pay the man and see that the men settle in and get some rest. I’m gonna go talk to the Army and see if I can find out what the hell happened to my sons.”

“And after that?”

“After that? Well, now that all depends on what I find out from the Army. You scout around the town and see what you can discover. I wanna know what we’re up against in regards to Stone,” not seeing the proprietor’s eyes widen at the mention of Koko’s white man’s name. “If we can, I’d prefer not to have to chase her down – gives her too much of an advantage. But I’m not sure how the townsfolk feel about her; they might feel the need to get involved and that could get messy. I’d like it to be neat – less loose ends to tie up.”

“Meet back here for supper?”

“Yeah. If I get back from the fort earlier, I’ll come find you.” Then Mordecai headed back out, giving orders to one of his cowboys to look after his horse before turning his steps in the direction of the fort to find some answers.

************

The proprietor of the hotel, one Matthew Carver by name, took the money from Riggins and passed him keys to the six rooms he had available. He answered the questions Riggins put to him, telling the truth as much as possible without actually giving him much useful information. The town was already divided over their feelings about Reb Stone having some sort of Injun wife. No way was Carver going to add fuel to the fire against her if he could help it. God knew she’d done far more good for the people of the town and surrounding area than most of the holy rollers that wanted to condemn her.

If Riggins knew he was getting far less information than he’d expected, he didn’t let it show in his expression. Instead, he accepted the facts he was given with a polite nod of his head, then went back outside to give the boys their instructions. He knew if he asked around long enough, he’d be able to find someone more than willing to give him the answers he needed.

The cowboys took his words at face value, too tired to care much about the restrictions they had been placed under. They expected things to be over with and settled in another day or two – waiting that long for their pleasure would not kill them… and would probably be that much more pleasant when they were finally allowed to indulge.

Riggins watched them gather up their things, half leading the horses into the stables; the other half moving to put the saddle bags in their rooms. Satisfied that they were content to mind their orders for now, he left to make his trek through the town. Surely somewhere here he’d be able to find the answers he sought.

************

Kitty watched the Washburn contingent arrive in the late afternoon sunlight. Business was slow – not an unforeseen obstacle in the middle of the week – and she had plenty of time to watch the goings on in the town. She watched as Washburn went in, followed by a tall, gangly man she assumed was his trail boss by his gait and manner. The cowboys sat quietly mounted, bedraggled and obviously tired by their very demeanor, until the second man came back out and started issuing orders.

Her eyes moved back to the first man – Washburn, she’d concluded, given his age and direction. She waited until he disappeared around the street corner that would take him directly to the fort before allowing her gaze to return to the large group of cowboys now splitting up.

She let her eyes follow the trail boss as he headed up the street, wondering what he was looking for. When he went into the dry goods store, she called for Ginger.

“Put on your going out duds and go talk to Matthew… see if he knows who those boys are and what they want. I have a feelin’ Washburn and his bunch just arrived in town. If I’m right, they should be lookin’ for Reb.”

“What ’bout you?”

“I’m gonna go talk to Stephen. Maybe he can go find Reb… give her a heads up that Washburn is here with a posse of men. Which in my opinion means he’s come lookin’ for trouble. He don’t need that many fellas just to pick up a body or two. And besides, he didn’t bring no wagons to transport anything or anyone home with him.”

“All right, Kitty. I’ll go talk to Matthew,” Ginger replied as they headed up the stairs together. “I have to say that I’ll be glad when this is all over.”

“Why?” Kitty asked, genuinely curious. She knew why she’d be glad to see the end of this little saga – Reb had always looked after them and though Kitty knew Reb was staying away to keep trouble in the town to a minimum, she missed her presence. “It hasn’t hurt business. Hell, if we got those cowboys in here, it’d be a nice little mid-week bonus.”

“And who’d service them, Kit? They’re Washburn’s men and they’re takin’ up sides against Reb – who’d take their blood money?”

Kitty smiled and wrapped an arm round Ginger’s waist. “I knew I could count on you, Ging. But why will you be glad when it’s over?”

“Cause it’ll be nice to have things settled. I’m tired of living in the center of a hornet’s nest that is really no one’s business to start with.”

“You think Reb defeating Washburn will stop that?”

“I can hope,” Ginger replied as she slipped into her ‘going out’ clothing. “No one much cared until the Washburn boys started stirring up shit about her.”

“We’ll hope, then. Although I don’t see them close-minded old biddies changing their minds about anything much anytime soon. It puts them in the wrong, ya know.”

Ginger snorted. “I wonder how they survived back East,” pinning her hair up under her hat and then opening the door and motioning Kitty out ahead of her. Kitty chuckled.

“Why do you think they came West?”

“Not to find the likes of us… or Reb Stone, I’m betting. Now go see Stephen. We’ll meet back here and pool our information.” Then they stepped from the saloon, each heading their own way.

************

Riggins was becoming more than a little frustrated – everywhere he had been in this town so far had been most unyielding with any information about Reb Stone. If he had been a suspicious man, he would have suspected a conspiracy against him personally. As it was, he was fairly confident he was being stonewalled for lack of a better term, but he couldn’t figure out why.

Finally, after unsuccessful ventures into the hotel, the dry goods store, the blacksmith’s shop, the tailor’s, the post office and the marshal’s office, Riggins was at something of a loss to know where else to try. Then the ringing of the bell signaling the time for prayer meeting got his attention and he turned and headed back the way he had come, only this time, he was going to church.

Reverend Hawkins stood outside the door greeting the few parishioners who deigned to attend mid-week services. There weren’t that many and not for the first time did the reverend wonder if it was all just a waste of time. Surely if the Lord were blessing his efforts here, there would be more of an outpouring… more people attending… more *something* at any rate. Then he saw a stranger approaching and his countenance changed.

“Welcome, friend,” he greeted. “Have you come to join us in worship?”

Riggins swallowed the guffaw he wanted to emit. Instead he cleared his throat, “No, Reverend. I’m pretty sure God wouldn’t welcome the likes a me.” Before the pastor could argue his words, Riggins continued. “I was looking for some information… about a bounty hunter by the name of Reb Stone.”

Hawkins’ eyes widened comically. “I see. Um… well, as you can see, I am preparing to conduct a prayer meeting service, but if we could talk in the morning….”

“Reverend, if I stay for your prayer meeting, would you be willing to talk to me tonight? I really do need that information as soon as possible.”

Daniel scrubbed a hand over his face, making a rasping buzzing noise. “It’s that important?”

“I b’lieve so.”

The reverend shook his head. “Let me get the service underway and when we break into prayer groups, you and me’ll have us a little talk.”

“Thank ya, Parson… ‘preciate it.”

************
Honaw’s face scrunched into a frown but he refused to open his eyes, brushing at whatever was tickling him. It stopped and he sighed, settling back down to sleep. A moment later the sensation returned and he swatted again, managing to wake himself when his hand came into contact with his face. He sat up, glaring at the ground around him to determine what had been annoying the hell out of him. Unable to find anything more than the waving grasses surrounding him, Honaw huffed and lay back down, hoping to get a little more sleep before the sun made its appearance over the horizon.

Donoma chuckled and looked at Koko wide-eyed. “How did you do that?” her voice a bare whisper. “He did not even see you, and you were sitting right next to him.”

“Years of practice, ka’eskone. Do you not recall the number of times we defeated the rest in hiding and seeking games because they could not find us? It is simply a matter of becoming part of your surroundings and it is one reason I am as successful as I am as a bounty hunter.”

“I was never able to master that skill the way you did, warrior. It was always you who blended us into what was around us. I had just never seen it work like that before – from the outside, so to speak.”

Koko nodded and then kissed Donoma, motioning for silence as they separated once more. Donoma watched in awe as Koko went around the camp, tickling and aggravating the warriors… even going so far as to awaken many of them without ever once revealing herself to them.

Then, as the sun began to edge towards the horizon, just as the sky lightened from black to gray, the men began to stir and Koko sat quietly on Black’s back… and waited.

Honaw was the first to open his eyes again, blinking furiously to clear his vision… only to shake his head in disbelief when they landed on Koko’s casually sprawled form.

One by one the warriors woke up, then fell into silence upon recognition that Koko Kanti and Donoma Chepi were in their midst. Only Hassun found the voice to speak.

“Greetings from the People, warrior champion and seer of the Great Spirit. We bid you welcome into our camp,” formally inviting both Koko and Donoma to join them. Koko and Donoma exchanged glances, then Koko slid negligently from her saddle before assisting Donoma from Dapples’ back.

“We accept your welcome and the warmth of your fire.” She motioned to the fire that Honaw and Keez were currently stoking back to flame.

“Join us,” Hassun invited, “and hear news we bring from the People.”

Honaw snorted, having finally had enough of the formality. He turned to Donoma and opened his arms and she walked into his embrace. Koko shook her head with a smile, extending an arm to Hassun in warrior greeting. Then the rest gathered around them, anxious to welcome them and offer their congratulations on the recent joining.

For a few minutes this went on and Koko allowed it to do so, knowing each of the men present wanted to express their happiness at the newest union among the People. She watched, seeing no jealousy or mistrust among her brothers in arms and sighed to herself in relief. Takoda and Odahingum had chosen well those they had sent to her aid. These would watch her back to the best of their ability, and in the event that something happened to her, they would see to it that Donoma was taken care of.

After a few minutes, however, she shook those thoughts from her head and motioned the warriors to settle. They did so quickly, taking their places around the fire and waiting for her to speak. She looked around at them, meeting each of their eyes briefly before moving on to the next. Only when she finished did she look at Donoma, holding out her hand and pulling Donoma to her when she grasped it.

“Hestatanemos, you honor us both by coming to us in what could be our time of need.”

“Could be, Koko Kanti? Have you had no vision of what is to come, Donoma?” Honaw asked his sister, not unkindly. Donoma shook her head.

“I have seen nothing, Honaw. The Great Spirit has shown me nothing beyond the finding of my mate. Has Neho’e seen?” gazing at him expectantly for an answer. Honaw shook his head.

“Not that he shared with us,” he said, glancing around the camp and finding confirmation in the eyes that met his. “Only that he felt it best to send the warriors of the People to stand with you if you had need of such.”

“And the rest?”

“The rest have gone to the summer camp.” Koko nodded with approval. “So Koko,” Keez continued speaking, “What can we do? What did Takoda and Odahingum send us here to do for you?”

“That depends on what Washburn does. If he comes to town simply to retrieve the remains of his sons, then nothing will need to be done. You will have taken a journey that will serve no purpose other than to allow us a chance to visit with each other.”

“But you do not believe this to be the truth,” Honaw stated without question.

“No. I believe he blames me for the death of his sons and that he will come seeking retribution from me.”

“Why has he not already done so?” Keez asked straightforwardly, then blinked and swallowed when all eyes turned in his direction. “Um… it just seems to me that since it has been more than half a moon since this started, he should have done something by now if he was going to.”

“Perhaps,” Koko conceded. “But you must keep in mind that he has to travel as well. And we have no way of knowing when he started or what the weather is like or how many miles he is willing to go in a single day. There are many things we are unaware of; therefore we must work under the best assumption we can make.”

“And you believe he will search for you.”

“I do. If he had already been to the fort and claimed his sons, the Marshal would have gotten word to me. Nevertheless, since I am responsible, however inadvertently, for the deaths of two of his sons and the crippling of the third, I do not think he will be able to let it go without some sort of revenge. I further believe that their deaths have interrupted the efforts of the horse thieves that I was accused of being party to – one I am convinced belongs to Mordecai Washburn.”

“Why?”

“Huh? What do you mean why? Why what?”

“Why do you believe Washburn to be a horse thief? From what Hassun explained, he is a rancher with enough food and shelter to provide for his clan. He has no need to steal.”

Koko snorted. “Since when does need matter in the grand scheme of things, Keez? He can, so he does. It makes him richer and more powerful in the white man’s world. And given what little we have learned, it makes the most sense.”

“Except for one thing,” Donoma commented gently. Koko arched an eyebrow and Donoma returned the favor, causing grins to break out among the warriors. “Why were they never caught? They had to have been doing something extremely well to have remained hidden. So who was helping them? And why bring attention to themselves by involving you?”

“Those are excellent questions, ka’eskone,” Koko stated without qualm. “I believe the answer to the second part of your theory is revenge. I was a thorn in their side and they hoped that by slandering my name, I would be forced to work with them. That definitely could have been to their advantage.”

“And the first?”

“I think Donoma is on the right track,” Koko said. “However, we need to get moving. If Washburn is going to come looking for me, I am going to force him to meet me on my turf… on my terms.”

With those words, the warriors moved as one to eliminate any trace of the camp. Then they mounted up and waited for Koko and Donoma to do the same – for where they led, the warriors would always follow.
Chapter XLII
“So then Mister…?” Daniel Hawkins hesitated and looked his question at the man currently seated across from him. He had clear eyes and a strong chin and the good reverend had his suspicions as to why this stranger was asking after Reb Stone. But he decided to let the man speak for himself before jumping to any more conclusions. His track record in that regard was pretty bad lately.

“Riggins,” the foreman answered without hesitation. “Everyone just calls me Riggins.”

“Well then, Mr. Riggins… what is it you think I can help you with?”

“As I said, Reverend… I’m lookin’ for some information about the bounty hunter Reb Stone.”

“May I ask why you are looking for her?” A beat. “I have to tell you, Mr. Riggins – Reb Stone has been a powerful force for good in this town. Even those that don’t like her respect the things she has done for this place.”

“Is that why people are unwilling to even talk about her?”

The minister nodded. “Pretty much. It doesn’t help that you’re a stranger to them.”

“I see,” Riggins said, truly understanding Hawkins’ point. “Perhaps you’d be willing to share a little about her then,” he asked. “All I know is she is a bounty hunter that has crossed one line too many as far as my boss is concerned. I’m beginnin’ to wonder if she had a legitimate reason to.”

“Your boss… Mordecai Washburn?”

“You know him?”

“I know *of* him. He had two sons in the Army stationed at the fort here – both dead now. I have to be honest with you, Mr. Riggins… I have heard some things about them since their deaths that don’t paint an honorable picture of them. They seemed to have personal issues with Stone that have brought some of their own activities into a questionable light.”

“How so?”

The minister folded his hands together on his desk and met Riggins eyes unflinchingly. “Do you know how serious a charge of horse thievin’ is in these here parts, Mr. Riggins? Do you know the penalty if a man is proven to be a horse thief?” Riggins nodded, his eyes wide at the implication of Hawkins’ words.

“Leroy and Reuben were making some rumblings against Stone… accusing her of being a horse thief.”

“Perhaps she was,” Riggins replied bluntly.

“No, Mr. Riggins. She wasn’t. It’s not even vaguely possible.”

“Why?” he asked in a reasonable tone. “She’s done so much good that she’s not capable of such a terrible crime? Did anyone ever stop to think that maybe the reason she’s done so much good is to keep people from seeing her true motive? To gain the trust of the people here so she could rob them blind?”

“Except that she hasn’t had the time… until recently, every spare moment was spent here in town. And she has been far too busy catching the outlaws and criminals in this territory to have had time to round up horses – to say nothing of having the time or the means to dispose of them.”

“And you think two Army officers would have?”

“All I know for certain, Mr. Riggins, is that Reb Stone is no horse thief.”

“There’s no smoke without some fire, Parson.”

“Then I suggest you go lookin’ where that smoke started.”

“Are you speakin’ ill of the dead, Reverend?”

“The Army ain’t dead, Mr. Riggins.”

Riggins stood and Daniel rose with him. “Do you know where Stone is?” he asked bluntly as Hawkins opened the door to let him leave.

“No. She and her mate haven’t been in town for over two weeks.”

“Would you tell me if you knew?”

“I dunno,” Hawkins replied. “I’d like to think so if only to give Stone a chance to clear her name. But I don’t think that’s what you want her for, is it?”

“Good evening, Reverend,” Riggins said as he walked out the door without answering the parson’s question. Hawkins watched him head back to the inn, and after only a moment’s hesitation, stepped out of the room and closed the door behind him. Maybe he could catch the Marshal before things got ugly.

************

“Are you sure, Kitty?” Murphy asked, even as he girded himself with extra guns and ammunition. He had a feeling he was going to have to go looking for Stone and he wanted to be prepared for any eventuality.

“As sure as I can be, Stephen. There were a whole passel of cowboys with him and the old man took off for the fort first thing. I’d say it has to be Washburn, but Ginger went to talk to Matthew about it to make sure.” She glanced at her timepiece. “She should be back at the saloon by now. You wanna go ask her?”

“I s’pose I should. Could you…?”

“I’ll saddle your horse, but you be quick, ya hear me?”

He chuckled and slapped his hat down on the top of his head. “Fast as I can, Kitty. The way this thing seems to be coming to a head, I can’t afford to go slow. Be right back.”

She waved him out then looked down at her good clothes and grimaced before heading out back to the stable. I must be nuts, she grumbled to herself silently. I only hope it’s all worth it. Then she got down to the business of getting Murphy’s horse saddled, feeling like time was quickly slipping away from them.

************

A knock on his open door made John Spencer look up in annoyance. Usually when the door was open, his sergeant just walked to the desk and waited to be acknowledged. It made for a more relaxed atmosphere and Spencer appreciated that in light of all the stringent regulations he was forced to work under. So now he pinned Clemmons with a baleful stare.

“I’m sorry for interrupting, sir,” letting him know that the interruption was official and yet out of his normal jurisdiction. “But there is a Mr. Mordecai Washburn here to see you.”

Spencer swallowed hard and nodded his head. He cleared his desk, then nodded to Clemmons. “Please show him in, Sergeant, and close the door behind you.”

“Yessir,” stepping back and motioning Washburn in. The door closed with the barest snick and the two men stood looking at one another. Finally….

“Mr. Washburn,” motioning the older man to a seat. “I’m so sorry….”

“Save it, Colonel,” Washburn snapped, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “What the hell were you thinking?? How could you screw this up so badly?”

“Sit down and lower your voice or I’ll have you removed.”

“Careful, little man… I know enough to have you locked up in your own stockade for the rest of your life,” though he did lower his voice and take the seat Spencer offered him. Mordecai nodded his head in the affirmative when the colonel offered him a shot of whiskey.

“Just remember anything you think you know implicates you and no one here will take the word of a grieving father over a respected Army colonel.”

“So you think you’ve got it all figured out, do you?”

“I think I know enough to keep me in the clear. If you had just stayed out of it….”

“Don’t even go there, boy! Who do you think set you up here in the first place?? You didn’t earn that commission – any more than either of my other two sons did. *I* paid for it… lock, stock and barrel. So don’t sit there and act like you don’t owe me!”

“I *don’t* owe you, DAD. This was payment for your sins remember? To assuage your conscious for what you did to my mother… and your other wife.”

Washburn’s face grew apoplectic with rage. “Don’t you speak to me in that tone, boy. You may be my son, but….”

“NO! I am not your son – you made that perfectly clear when you gave me this commission. I was a debt to be paid… guilt to be bought off. And still it came with strings attached. How did you manage to get them assigned to my unit?”

Washburn shrugged. “It was easy. Anything is easy with money and the right connections.”

“So now what?”

“Now I want you to explain to me how things got so fucked up. You were supposed to look out for your brothers.”

“That’s rich. *Now* you want them to be my brothers?? Maybe you should have explained that to them a little more clearly. Maybe you should have taught them how to follow orders better.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying it is their own damn fault that they’re dead. And it’s their damn fault that your little horse operation has gone awry.
I told them to leave things alone. And I told them to leave Stone out of it. They couldn’t quite seem to manage it… especially the part about Stone. Now the entire town is up in arms over the accusations they made. They believe the Washburn boys were dirty… trying to cover their own guilt by laying the blame on Stone. If they’d just kept her out of it….”

“So what are you doing about it?”

“Not a damn thing,” Spencer growled. “When the fervor dies down, you *might* be able to resume operations again, but I wouldn’t count on it. All eyes are looking at us right now, and I’m not risking myself or anyone else for you. As far as I am concerned, the horse business died when Leroy got greedy and Reuben got stupid.”

“How dare you…?”

“How dare *I*?? Very easily. After all… you sit back on the ranch and wait for the profits to flow in. You’re not out here doing all the work and taking all the risks.”

“I have clients….”

“Then I suggest you find a legitimate way to fulfill their contract, sir, because the US Army is no longer at your beck and call.”

“I’ll crush you.”

“You can try. But I assure you, Mr. Washburn, I have learned a good many things in recent days. I doubt very seriously you would land on the winning side of a confrontation between us. And kindly do not forget that I have an entire garrison at my disposal. How many cowboys did you bring along on this vendetta of yours? A dozen, maybe? Do you really want to chance it?”

“You wouldn’t….”

“Try me,” Spencer confirmed flatly. “Take the bodies of your two sons and go home, old man. Leave Stone alone. Going after her will only bring you more heartache.”

“I’m entitled to retribution. I’m entitled to justice.”

Now Spencer laughed, a cruel, bitter sound. “Justice has already been dealt, and even Stone’s enemies would agree with that. Cut your losses and go home.”

Washburn stood and shoved his chair against the colonel’s desk. “I’ll make that determination, boy – not you or some abomination from God. I owe her and I’m gonna make sure things are square between us before I go home. You just stay out of my way!”

Washburn stomped over to the door and jerked it open, letting it slam against the wall as he walked out. Spencer just watched him go, not surprised when Clemmons stuck a cautious head in.

“Would you like me to close it again, sir?”

“No, Sergeant – leave it open. I think Mr. Washburn was just overcome with grief.”

Clemmons nodded and resumed his seat without a word. There was no way he was going to tell the colonel that he’d overheard every single word. Suddenly, Jake Clemmons had a lot to think about, and not much time to make a decision in.

************

“You can’t stop us, Marshal. We’ll either ride with you, or we’ll follow along behind. But you’re not gonna leave us out of this. Too many of us here owe too much to Reb Stone to allow her to face this without some backup.”

“And what makes you think something’s goin’ on?”

“Marshal, we ain’t none of us that stupid. We all know who come to town today and judging from the amount of bodies he brought with him, I’d say it was fairly safe to assume it wasn’t just to pick up his boys and head back to his ranch. Now what’s it gonna be? Are we riding together or are we followin’ ‘long behind ya?”

Murphy sighed. Truth was, he wanted the backup. But he also didn’t want to put these men in danger. There was a very real possibility that there would be a gunfight, and if that was the case, men were going to die.

“Marshal,” another man spoke up. “We know the risks and we accept them. Our choice… not your responsibility.”

“All right then,” Murphy said after another long moment of meeting each of their eyes and seeing the determination writ clearly in every pair. “Gear up. We could be out there for a while. I’m gonna go let Spencer know to keep an eye on things while we’re gone.” The men nodded and went about their tasks while Stephen Murphy headed to the Army Fort.

The door was closed and he could hear raised voices, but Murphy was so intent on heading out to find Reb that he dismissed it as inconsequential at the time. Instead, he gave Clemmons a brief rundown of what was going on and obtained the sergeant’s word that they would keep an eye on things. It wasn’t until he was on his way back into town to pick up his posse that it occurred to him that Spencer must have been in conference with Washburn. He wondered what had caused them to argue or if it was just a father venting his grief. Murphy hoped it was the second, but he had the feeling there was a lot more to it than he knew. He only hoped not knowing now wouldn’t come back to bite him in the ass later.

The men of the town were waiting for him in front of the brothel, already mounted and geared up, ready to go. Only Daniel Hawkins remained behind, unsurprisingly, although in all honesty, Murphy was glad he was staying in town. The Marshal didn’t trust him and keeping him here meant not having to watch his back out there.

Kitty came out of the saloon, still all gussied up and only a little worse for the wear. He stepped up to her and nodded towards his horse. “Thanks, Kitty.”

“You owe me.”

“I certainly do.”

“Here,” handing him a package. “Somethin’ from Big Mama. Don’t ask… I don’t know what it is either. Prob’ly cookies for all of you your first night out.”

Murphy nodded. “I don’t know how long we’ll be. The Army’s s’posed to keep an eye on things, but you may want to keep an eye on the Army. And definitely keep an eye on the good reverend. I don’t trust him overly much.”

“I’ll do what I can, but make it quick, will ya? I got a bad feeling about this.”

“Do my best,” he assured her, leaning over and kissing her cheek. “I’ll even try to get Reb and Donoma to come back with me, depending on how things go.”

“I’m not gonna hold my breath. If I was the two of them, I’d want to be as far away from here as I could get. But you make sure they know that we’ll welcome them with open arms if they do come back.”

“I’ll tell, ’em, Kit. You just take care while we’re gone.”

“You too, Marshal. That could be a mighty long road you’re fixing to travel.”

He nodded and mounted up, then turned his horse towards the sun that was moving closer and closer to the horizon. They would have to travel after dark, but they would reach Reb’s homestead tonight. Depending on what they found there would determine their next course of action. Murphy only hoped they would not be too late.
Chapter XLIII
“So what is the plan, Koko Kanti? Surely we are not going to wait here for the white man to come and slaughter us?”

“Not at all, Keezheekoni. We will set up a perimeter around the area. When Washburn comes, he will be surrounded.”

“Why do I get the feeling it will not be that easy?” Donoma muttered under her breath, but Koko turned and met her eyes.

“Because you are wise beyond your years and experience, ka’eskone.” She turned back to the warriors of the People. “I will not tell you it will be easy, because I do not think it will. Washburn has been around for a long time.”

“What if he does not come? How long are we to wait here?”

“Stephen will find us – I marked the trail for him. He will let us know if Washburn returns without seeking revenge.”

“Why you?” Honaw asked abruptly. “Why come after you? Why implicate you at all?” He shook his head and looked at Koko. “It seems to me that it was rather stupid to bring such attention to you when had they simply left you alone, none of this would have happened.”

Koko sighed. That question still plagued her. “I was something they could not conquer… could not tame. It started when I won Black and it went downhill from there. When I would not scout for them, it made it worse and when I would not sleep with them, it got personal.”

“You were not meant for them. You were meant for Donoma Chepi!”

“I am aware,” Koko replied to the outrage drolly. “But they were not suited for that kind of rejection.”

“Koko,” spoke up one of the more silent warriors unexpectedly. “There is something I do not understand.”

“There are many things I do not understand, Rogi. What is your question?”

“How did they expect to darken your name with this accusation? By your own account, the one who shot Donoma did so in order to steal Black from you. How did he intend to accuse you of being a thief when all the evidence points to him?”

“I believe he was under the mistaken impression that the people in town would believe him because of his Blue Coat. Or he thought that by accusing me, I would be more likely to join him in his endeavors.”

“What an idiot! That has to be the dumbest idea….”

Donoma snickered. “From what I have gathered, he was not noted for his intelligence. I am beginning to believe that lack runs in the family.”

“Then we should be glad there is only one other to contend with. I wish we did not have to wait for him to come to us, though. I would like to get this over with so we can all go home,” Honaw said, not missing the glances Donoma and Koko exchanged. “What?”

“We may not be returning to the People right away, Honaw,” Donoma said softly, but the camp was so quiet, everyone heard her words. “Koko and I would like to spend some time reacquainting ourselves with one another… spend a bit of time alone together.”

“So suddenly the People are not good enough to be your family?” he asked outraged. “We watched over you and cared for you when she left you alone, but now that she has returned we are not enough??” He rose from his place and stomped off into the darkness before anyone could formulate an answer. Keez stood to follow him, but Donoma laid a hand on his arm and shook her head

“My place,” she stated and with a nod, he acquiesced. Donoma and Koko shared a glance so intimate, the rest looked away out
of respect for their privacy. Koko ran a tender hand down the side of Donoma’s face, smiling at the tremor she evoked with her touch, then sucking in her own breath when Donoma kissed her fingertips.

“Be quick, ka’eskone.”

“I will, warrior.” Then she turned and headed out into the darkness in the direction Honaw had disappeared.

************

“Marshal, how much further you figure we gotta go til we find ’em?” one of the men from the back of the crowd called out.

“Dunno, Thomas. Maybe an hour… maybe a little more. Been a while since I had to go riding in this direction. Truth is I’m not exactly sure where she is – I’m following her trail.”

“But you do expect to find her,” half statement and half question.

“Yep. It’s just a matter of time.” Just about that time he heard the cry of a hawk and he pulled up short, forcing everyone behind him to do the same. “Drop your guns… now!” before they could protest. He dropped his gunbelt and held up his hands, showing he was unarmed. The rest followed his example and they waited.

A long moment passed before a figure emerged from the darkness and the Marshal gave a sigh of relief when the moonlight revealed Reb Stone’s set features.

“Stephen, what’s all this?” motioning to the silent men behind him. “I was expecting you to come alone.”

“We wouldn’t let him, Reb,” Thomas spoke up before Murphy could open his mouth. “We owe you too much to let you face Washburn alone.”

“You don’t owe me….”

“Well, we’re still not gonna let you face him alone, Reb,” Murphy replied before an argument could erupt. “He brought himself in a passel of cowboys and his trail boss was asking questions ’bout you all over town.”

Koko nodded thoughtfully. “That does sound like he’s here to cause trouble all right. But, um… who’s looking after the town? If all of you are out here with me,” she continued as she watched comprehension dawn in their eyes, “who is watching out for your wives and children?”

“The Army,” Stephen answered promptly. “I stopped in and spoke to Clemmons. He assured me they’d keep an eye on things while we were gone.”

“Clemmons? Why not Spencer?”

“He was in a closed door meetin’. I think it was with Washburn.”

“You think?”

“Hard to say with the door closed,” Murphy responded impatiently. “But I heard raised voices.” He shrugged again. “A little odd, now that I think about ’cause it sounded more like anger than grief. Might oughta shoulda checked that out a little bit.”

“Too late to worry about it now,” Koko commented. “Come join us around the fire and we’ll see if we can figure out what we need to do now.”

“Why do we need to do anything, Reb? I trust Clemmons – he’ll make sure Spence knows.”

Koko shook her head, not sure how to convey her doubts about Spencer. Until recently, she’d had none, but then again, until recently her interaction with the Army Colonel had been fairly limited. They knew of one another, exchanged greetings in the saloon, but most of Koko’s interaction remained between her and Stephen Murphy.

“Where’s Donoma?” the Marshal asked, bringing her out of her brown study. Koko motioned to the north.

“Talking to her brother.”

Murphy’s eyebrows rose, but he left well enough alone. He figured he’d hear about it eventually if he needed to know. If not… well, it wasn’t like there wasn’t plenty on his plate already. Koko made the introductions around and then they all sat and started discussing possibilities.

************

“Honaw?”

“Go away, Donoma. I do not want to talk to you right now.”

“Well, I am not going anywhere so you let me know when you are ready to talk about it.”

Honaw turned his back to her and Donoma took the opportunity to look up at the stars. Honaw wondered at the complete silence and shifted enough to catch the look on her face. There was happiness there… something that had been missing for five very long cycles. But more than that, there was peace. He sighed.

“Why, ka’eskone? Why do you not want to return home with us?”

“I am not sure I can explain well enough for you to understand, Honaw.”

“Try, Donoma Chepi. I need to understand.”

Donoma turned back towards the stars, gazing at them with a small smile on her face. Honaw watched her, wondering what special magic the lights in the sky held for his sister. “All my life,” she began softly, “I have been part of the People… part of the whole that make up our clan. They gave me a home and a family and they are very important to me. I have always tried to give my best back to the People, sharing my sight with the elders and becoming a healer to those who needed one, even when my first priority was Koko.”

“But…?”

“When Koko left, the People were all I had and I put everything I had… everything I was… into the People. They were my whole world… my sole focus.”

Honaw shrugged. “I know, ka’eskone. I was there; I saw it all.”

Donoma sighed. “I cannot do that now, Honaw. Koko comes first, last and always for me. I still love the People and they will always be a part of my family, but Koko is my life. I cannot return to the People in the capacity I left – I am no longer that person. And I am not sure the People would understand the change.”

“Why? We are not stupid, Donoma.”

“No, Honaw. The People are not stupid. But this is not about intelligence nor is it about the wisdom of our fathers. This is about how things have changed. Things would not be like they were when Koko lived among us before, nor would they be like they were while she was gone from us.” She paused. “I am not saying we will not visit and I am not saying we will not one day return to the People one day to remain. But for now… for right now, Koko and I need to be alone together for a while. We need to adjust to life as an us without anyone else’s expectations on us.”

“Donoma, we all have had to live with expectations from the People as we have grown up. It is the way of life.”

“Not like this, Honaw.” He cocked his head and waited. Donoma sighed again and turned to face him. “When you and Gaagii were joined, nothing much changed except she had a fire and a home of her own that she shared with you instead of with her Nahko’e and Neho’e. Her responsibilities did not change and neither did yours. She remained a gatherer and provider – you remained a warrior.”

“Yes, so?”

“It would not be that way for me. I would no longer be healer and seer to the People. I would return to my role as warrior advisor to Koko Kanti. And she is no longer the warrior you knew growing up.”

“You did not see her in action against the white men who threatened us.”

“You have not seen her in any other way. To you she has always been a warrior. To me she is much more. And I do not think the People would not accept what she is now. She is more than just People, Honaw – she is white also. And she has a life among the white man just as she had one among us.”

“And what of you, Donoma? Do you have a life among the white man?”

“I have a life wherever Koko Kanti is, Honaw. And that may be among the People again one day. But not now. Now we need to be us together… just for a little while. When all this is over, I just want a little time to be with her – to rediscover the people we are together.”

Honaw stepped up to Donoma and put his hands on her shoulders. “I think I understand, ka’eskone. I will try to explain to Nahko’e and Neho’e, but I am not certain I can make them recognize the truth alone.”

Donoma smiled. “Koko and I will explain it to them, Honaw. Neho’e will understand; Nahko’e will not be happy but she will accept it.”

“You have seen?”

Donoma shook her head. “I just know. Now we need to return. I believe we have guests.”

Honaw cocked an eyebrow but Donoma didn’t answer. She simply headed back to Koko and the fire. Honaw jogged to catch up and together they walked back.

************

Washburn returned to the town just as the sun touched the horizon. He drew in a deep breath of spring air, then stepped inside the hotel. Carver was no longer behind the desk and none of Washburn’s own cowboys were to be seen. Blowing out a frustrated breath, Mordecai walked back out into the cooling air and stuck his hands in his pockets as he leaned against the railing. Something odd was going on.

He looked around the town, trying to pinpoint what had set off his intuition, but couldn’t find anything out of place. Then his eyes landed on the saloon brothel.

He growled.

“Oh, they better not’ve,” he muttered to himself. Mordecai pushed away from the railing and headed across the street.

It was quiet, which Washburn found strange. He’d never heard of a quiet saloon before. Even on week nights like this one was, there were always rowdy men making noise inside – getting drunk, playing cards, being chatted up by the whores who worked there. So the silence was a bit unnerving.

Unfortunately, the curtains over the glass windows had been pulled and he couldn’t see in, forcing him to go inside. When he did so, he was met by a mountain of a woman with the darkest skin he’d ever seen. He just looked at her while Big Mama glared at him.

“We’s closed,” she said in a tone that brooked no argument. He snorted his disbelief and she walked right into his personal space. “I said we’s closed.”

He stepped back slightly and her eyes lit in triumph. It made him angry. “Who’dya think you are, nigger woman? This is a bar and I want a drink. Now get outta my way,” pushing against her before finding his hand caught. Her eyes bore into his.

“We. Is. Closed.”

“Is there a problem, Big Mama?”

“No, Miss Kitty,” she called back to the woman on the stairs. “This gent’man was jus’ leavin’.”

Mordecai looked back and forth between the two women and finally shrugged his defeat. He had the answer he’d come in for. With a snarl he shoved his way back out the door. He noted Riggins coming back towards him from the direction of the church schoolhouse and crossed back over to the hotel. Maybe he’d have some answers, because Washburn couldn’t imagine Riggins going to church for any other reason.

Riggins stepped onto the porch and leaned against the opposite post from his boss. Mordecai looked at him impatiently. “Well?”

“Stone’s not here,” he replied succinctly. “But it appears that all the able-bodied men in town have departed – headed out to parts unknown. I’m bettin’ that they’ve gone lookin’ for Stone.”

“And left the town unprotected?”

“Well, the Army is still here.”

Washburn laughed without a trace of humor. “I can take care of the Army.” He scraped a hand across his chin thoughtfully. “We should be able to make this work in our favor… force Stone to come to us. That will give us an added advantage.”

“What’re we gonna do?”

“Tonight? We’re gonna have a bite of supper and a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow will be soon enough to figure out a way to get Stone back here without actually killin’ too many of the townsfolk here.” He chuckled again. “We do it right… no one’ll have to die… ‘ceptin’ for Stone and her little whore. And I don’t think too many here will mourn her passin’ for very long.”

Riggins wasn’t sure he agreed, but he didn’t comment. Instead he turned and held the door open for Washburn to enter the hotel ahead of him. Neither man noticed Kitty step out of the shadows nor head down the street towards the church, determination in her stride.

************

Daniel Hawkins looked up from his desk when Kitty flung the door open. He sat back when she leaned over his desk, fire burning in her eyes.

“Daniel, we need to talk.”

He motioned her to a chair and waited for her to speak.
Chapter XLIV
It had been a long, long time since Daniel Hawkins had ridden trail as he was attempting to do now. He’d been something of a rebel rouser growing up and had learned to follow the signs to keep away from trouble when things started to get too hot. Now he was trying to remember lessons he’d deliberately put from his mind when he’d become a preacher.

There’d been a fight with his wife when he’d left. She more than any one else in town had trouble accepting Reb Stone as anything other than an abomination against everything she thought God intended a woman to be. Daniel wondered what secrets Mary was keeping from him to make her opinions of Stone so vehement.

He had prevailed however, when he stressed the danger she and the other women of the town could possibly be in given what Kitty had overheard. And despite Mary’s disdain for Kitty and the other whores because of their profession, even she had to admit that none of them were prone to lying. In fact, in her opinion, they were generally disgustingly honest if only for the shock value it provided them.

So she’d packed him a lunch and kissed him goodbye before closing the door behind him and going to their bed alone.

Now he rode along in the dark, pondering Kitty’s words even as he looked for signs of the way the Marshal and his posse had traveled earlier. Fortunately, it was a large group and they had made no real effort to hide their tracks. Daniel had to wonder at the wisdom of that particular circumstance, but he was smart enough to realize there was probably very little the Marshal could do about it, given that he had somewhat unwillingly accepted the help of his unlooked for troop of men.

He sighed with exhaustion – it had been years since he’d been able to go all day and all night too, and marriage had only added to that change. He rubbed at his burning eyes, hoping his horse was smart enough to continue to follow the tracks for a minute while he rested his eyes. The next time he opened them, the sun was just edging over the horizon and the horse had come to a complete standstill.

Daniel blinked and looked around, wondering what had caused his horse to stop and him to waken. Then he felt the chills skitter up his spine, recognizing that he was surrounded by some very unhappy looking Indians. He slowly raised his hands above his head, hoping that his surrender would keep him from dying long enough to allow him to get a message to Reb Stone. After that….

The natives didn’t move, merely kept an eye on him. Daniel remained completely still and silent, waiting for something to happen. He was not stupid enough to believe he could do anything at the moment.

After a little while, the group parted though they never took their eyes from him. He wasn’t really surprised to see Stone step from their midst, but he kept his hands raised as a precaution. A signal from Koko brought down the weapons aimed at Hawkins and at her nod he slowly lowered his hands as well.

“Reverend? What brings you out here?” Not unfriendly, but definitely not welcoming either.

He cleared his throat awkwardly. “A message from Kitty. She said you needed to know.” He cleared his throat again. “She overheard Washburn and his trail boss Riggins talking. Seems they’re looking to turn the town into some kind of a trap for you.”

“What about the Army?”

“Washburn thinks he can handle the Army – control them somehow. I dunno if she knows how – she didn’t share it with me. But he figures if he owns the town, you’ll come to him and he’ll have the advantage over you.”

Koko ran a hand over her chin thoughtfully. “He might be right about that. Then again, he might not.” She motioned him down from his horse. “C’mon and have some breakfast with us. Then we’ll see if we can come up with anything to counteract whatever it is he’s planning.” Hawkins slid from his horse’s back and Koko looked at him sharply. “Does anyone else know you’re out here?”

“Only Mary,” he replied instantly. “And I think I impressed upon her the danger of talking outta turn about this. At least I hope so.” Koko threw a look at him and Daniel continued. “I didn’t like the looks of those fellas. Riggins seemed like a fairly decent sort, but as long as he’s tied up with Washburn….”

“What about Washburn set you off?” Murphy asked when Koko motioned Hawkins to a seat around the campfire. Most of the warriors were seated on one side and the Marshal’s posse was on the other. Daniel took his place between Murphy and Honaw, accepting a mug of coffee with a sense of relief. His eyes were still scratchy and burning from a distinct lack of rest and the coffee was strong enough to make the hair on his arms stand up and take notice.

“I think,” Hawkins said after several swallows of the hot liquid, “it was mostly his attitude. Obviously he came to town looking for trouble – he refused to let his cowboys visit the saloon. And despite my religious bent on the subject, I find that highly disturbing. You can’t make me believe those boys aren’t ready for a little action with the ladies. And he swaggered back from the fort like he already owned the place.”

He took another sip and accepted a piece of buffalo jerky from Honaw with a grateful nod. “I was standing on the steps of the church just as he stepped outta the saloon. According to Kitty, he was checking the place out. Big Mama stopped him like a stone wall,” chuckling at the imagery. “I didn’t see him but a minute when Riggins left, but there’s just something about him that don’t set right with me.”

“I’m thinkin’ that if what you say is true, Reverend, and I don’t doubt it is, then we’ve got ourselves a right fine mess of trouble. Question is, what’re we gonna do about it?”

Murphy looked at Koko who realized every single eye was on her. “I will speak with Donoma.” Without another word, she turned and walked away from the camp.

“What t’hell?” Murphy turned to Honaw and waited for an explanation. Honaw returned his gaze impassively and the Marshal felt compelled to expound on his query. “Honaw, where is Reb goin’ and why does she need to talk to Donoma? Surely someone as delicate as Mrs. Stone can’t be expected to understand the seriousness of the situation we’re in.”

“Donoma Chepi seer and warrior advisor to Koko Kanti. She will tell Koko what Great Spirit gives.”

Murphy blinked. Whatever answer he’d expected, this hadn’t even been close. “Are you tellin’ me she can see the future?”

“Sometimes… if Great Spirit wishes to share knowledge.”

“I’ll be a son of a biscuit. That could come in real handy.”

“Does… but only when knowledge is given. Not often.”

“Do you think your Great Spirit shared with Mrs. Stone about this?” Daniel speaking this time and Honaw turned to look at him a little more clearly as he chewed the tough jerky. He wrinkled his nose at the white man’s address of his sister. He understood why – Koko had been very patient in her explanation with the warriors about it. And he appreciated the respect it afforded Donoma in the white man’s world. It was still disconcerting to hear her called so.

“Do not know. Only know she went on vision quest after Marshal arrived.”

“Well, I hope t’hell somebody gives Reb an idea on how to deal with all this, ’cause I am right fresh outta ideas.”

Honaw nodded but said nothing. Instead, he settled back to wait.

************

Koko walked swiftly but silently to the place where Donoma Chepi had chosen to make her quest. She remained in the same position Koko had seen her in many times before – sitting on her legs, hands on her thighs with palms upturned and eyes closed
in peaceful repose. Koko did nothing to disturb her, but assumed the same position behind and slightly to the right of Donoma.

After a few minutes of light meditation, Koko opened her eyes to find Donoma looking at her with a tiny grin on her face. She couldn’t stop the answering smile that graced her lips.

“I missed you last night, ka’eskone. The blanket was very cold without you.”

“How would you know that, warrior? You sat in exactly the same spot and kept watch over me last night.”

“You noticed that, did you?”

“Oh yes, Nutta. I felt you beside me even during my quest.”

“Did you learn anything interesting?”

“Perhaps, but we need to return to the town. I will explain to you what I saw on the way. You will have time to consider the knowledge before we arrive. I do know that we should arrive under the cover of darkness. It will give us an advantage that Washburn expects to have for himself – the element of surprise.”

“That is very wise, Donoma Chepi.” Koko rose from her place smoothly, then extended a hand down to Donoma, helping her stand and steadying her on exhausted legs. “Will you be all right to travel, ka’eskone?”

“I will manage, Koko Kanti. We cannot delay our journey. To do so would mean death or hardship to those we call friends, and
I do not want that to happen if we can prevent it.”

Koko stared into Donoma’s eyes and read the truth in them for herself. She blew out a breath and nodded. “Very well, Donoma.
I do not want that either. Come. We will head back to our cabin so you can rest for a little while. We will leave from there in time to assure our arrival in town after darkness falls.”

“That sounds like a good idea, warrior,” Donoma conceded. “I am glad we are at the closest of the safe places you prepared for battle.”

“As am I. I will have the men and warriors bunk down in the meadow – they will be safe enough there and it will give them the opportunity to get a little more rest as well. I do not think many got much rest last night – too anxious about the whole situation. Perhaps we will also be able to share a hot meal with them before we leave for town.”

“I think I can manage some sort of stew or something. We have the supplies – it is simply a matter of finding a pot big enough to feed everyone.”

They arrived back in the camp then and looked around to find every eye on them waiting expectantly. “Mount up,” Koko commanded. “We’ll return to our cabin to wait until we can leave to reach the town under the cover of darkness. Donoma has offered to prepare a hot meal and there’s a meadow where you’ll be able to rest in relative safety.”

The men nodded their understanding and rose in one body to go to their horses. Making sure the fire was doused, Koko followed suit, riding up beside Donoma to lead her little band back towards a confrontation with Mordecai Washburn.

************

Mordecai Washburn opened his eyes just as the sun rose from its bed and started painting its way across the morning sky. He stretched, wincing as his back popped several times – this bed wasn’t nearly as comfortable as the feather down one at his ranch, but if sleeping here for a few days would allow him the revenge he sought, then he would bear the discomfort stoically.

He lay still, working out the logistics of his plan. The first item on his agenda, after breakfast of course, would be to take care of the Army and assure that if he didn’t have their complete cooperation and backing, at least they would not interfere in his right to justice. After that, he would do some scouting in the town… find the best places to put his men for an ambush if it became necessary. Despite his desire to eliminate Reb Stone himself and his expectation of doing so, he wanted to leave nothing to chance. The woman had been a bane to his family long enough and had already proven her elusiveness by the sheer fact that she continued to survive despite every effort to the contrary.

Satisfied he had a plan for his day, Washburn stretched again – this time enjoying the pull of muscles without the pain of realigning his spine. He rolled from his bed and washed his face, then headed downstairs to see what was for breakfast.

Riggins was already sitting at a small table with a plate in front of him and the rest of the cowboys occupied the two larger tables in the room. Washburn looked around curiously before taking the seat across from Riggins, wondering when he’d gotten so old that he was the last man to drag himself from the bed. Then he gave a mental shrug. It wasn’t like he wasn’t entitled to a sleep in once in a while, he supposed – especially given how draining this whole damned trip had been so far.

The woman brought out a full plate and set it in front of him, then filled his coffee cup. He nodded his thanks and picked up his fork to dig in, waiting until she had moved on to the other tables before looking at Riggins.

“Everything quiet?”

“Everythin’s good, boss. The boys stayed in last night just like they were told and the townsfolk, while not sympathetic towards you, don’t seem to be antagonistic towards you either. I think….” Riggins trailed off, not certain Washburn wanted to hear his thoughts on the subject.

“You think what, man?” shoveling more food into his mouth and making it clear he expected Riggins to fill the silence that was left between them.

“I think you’d be better served if the folks here didn’t know they were bein’ used against Stone. If they find out, it might cause them to rise up an’ riot. Not sure we really want that.” Riggins picked up his cooling coffee and took a large gulp.

Washburn continued to shovel and chew as he pondered Riggins’ words. The man had a good point, and there was really no reason to stir people up early if he didn’t have to. He really didn’t want to hurt the folks in this town – they were simply a means to an end. And with the Army behind him….

He nodded his head and pushed his empty plate away, signaling the woman to refill his coffee. When she was done and had retreated to the kitchen, Washburn turned his attention back to Riggins.

“All right,” he admitted. “You’ve got a good point. Tell the boys to lay low – groom the horses, take a ride out of town as long as they don’t go too far, whatever – just stay out of trouble and out of sight. As soon as I have the Army on board, we’ll siddown and figure out the quickest way to end this.” He winced as another twinge went through his back. “I wanna get back home to my own bed.”

Riggins nodded and made to stand. A hand on his arm caused him to look at Washburn with a question in his eyes. “I want you to go take a good look around town – see where we can put the boys when we get word that Stone is inbound. I was gonna do that myself, but I trust you to take care of it while I go deal with the Army.”

“All right, boss. It might take me a while. I don’t want the women here to get up in arms.”

“Take your time. We’ll have Stone brought in on our timetable. Once we’re set and know how to proceed, I’ll have the Army send a runner out to find her. I’m sure that’ll cause her to come racing back. And if we’re really lucky, we’ll get that little Injun whore of hers I’ve heard so much about. Two Stones with one birdie blow,” he added, laughing at his own twisted joke. “If I’m not at the fort, I’ll be here. And if I’m not here when you get done, wait for me.”

“Will do, boss.” Then Riggins motioned to the cowboys, who rose as a single unit and followed him outside to get their instructions. Washburn drank the last of his coffee, then stood and headed out of the hotel and towards the fort. He had things to do.

************

Sergeant Jake Clemmons was in a bit of a quandary. He knew what he had overheard the day before and what it meant. The real question now was what to do with the information and who he could trust – not only to believe him, but to do the right thing about it.

Before he could come to any conclusions, Colonel Spencer walked in, greeting him good morning and continuing into his office. Clemmons rose from his seat and followed him in with a cup of coffee. Spence accepted if gratefully and took a sip before he spoke again.

“Report.”

“Quiet so far, sir. The staff meeting is at ten and you scheduled an inspection of ‘B’ barracks for this afternoon. The men of companies ‘A’ and ‘D’ are drilling today and ‘C’ company has the watch.”

“Thank you, Sergeant. I need to draft a letter to the Secretary of the Army, so could you please see that I’m not disturbed for the time being? Just let me know about five minutes before the staff meeting is to start.”

“Yessir.” Clemmons closed the door behind him as he left and went to his desk, still pondering his dilemma.

For his part, Spencer went around the desk and took his seat. He had work to do.

For a little while, things continued to run smoothly and the Colonel was able to concentrate on drafting the letter he felt compelled to write. Then a noisy disturbance outside his office interrupted his concentration and he went to the door, jerking it open with more than a hint of annoyance. He saw Mordecai Washburn and his guts roiled with a sick sense of chagrin.

However, he put on his military game face and bellowed, “What is going on here?!?”

Clemmons snapped to attention. “Mr. Washburn demanded to see you, sir. I told him you were unavailable, but he refuses to take no for an answer.”

Spencer turned to Washburn and dredged up the courage he should have shown long before. “I’m sorry, Mr. Washburn. My sergeant is right. I’m incredibly busy at the moment.”

“You’ll take the time to see me!” Mordecai fumed.

“Of course I will, just not this particular moment. I need to take care of Army business first. Why don’t you join me for lunch?” Spencer extended his invitation courteously, though his eyes told a far different story. “We can talk about whatever is on your mind then and I’ll be able to devote my entire attention to it.”

Mordecai eyed Spencer disdainfully, his fury clear in his eyes. “Fine, Colonel. But I expect to be satisfied when I leave.”

“We’ll take care of you, sir. The Army takes care of its own and you lost two sons in its service. Now if you’ll excuse me….” He gave a half-bow before closing his door once more. Washburn growled, but stomped away in a fit of pique. Clemmons just sat down dazedly shaking his head. Something was definitely going on here and he needed to find out what it was before it was too late – for any of them.
Chapter XLV
“I never realized how quickly one could become accustomed to decadence, warrior,” Donoma said as she wearily stretched out on the thick mattress of their bed. The men had swiftly settled into the peaceful meadow and Donoma had started a savory stew in the largest cauldron Koko possessed. Even now its fragrance wafted from the campsite where the men were currently relaxing.

Now however, Donoma was falling into a deep sleep, trusting Koko’s instincts to watch over them as the warrior wrapped herself around Donoma’s smaller frame in a protective embrace.

Koko didn’t respond – there was no reason to. Donoma was already asleep. Koko closed her eyes as well, letting her mind ease into a meditative trance where she could rest and still ponder the words Donoma had share with her on the ride.

************

“So what vision did the Great Spirit share with you, ka’eskone? Will we be successful?”

Donoma cut her eyes in Koko’s direction, leveling a glare that should have caught her hair on fire. Koko raised a hand to make sure it wasn’t actually burning and despite the seriousness of the situation, Donoma could not stop the snicker that escaped her lips. Koko smiled sheepishly and shrugged.

“Sorry, Donoma… I know better than to ask such a question, but….”

“I saw that if we arrive by night, we will have the element of surprise that Washburn expects to be his. I saw some Blue coats fighting with us and some Blue Coats fighting against us. We need to find the Blue Coats that would be our allies. I believe they will be the ones to ensure our victory.”

************

Koko had nodded thoughtfully, but now that she thought about it, she wondered which Blue Coats would ally themselves with her and against their own. How was Washburn going to divide the Army? And who was going to jeopardize their career to keep from following orders?

The more she thought about it, the more she realized that Kitty had to be right about the Colonel. Only he would have the authority to issue the order to fight, but why? What did Spencer have to gain from taking up arms against the townspeople in order to assure that Mordecai Washburn got the vengeance he was seeking? And who, *who* would be man enough to stand up to those orders?

She would talk to Murphy on the ride into town. Maybe he could shed a little light on what they could expect and from whom.

First, though, she was going to enjoy the tranquility surrounding her in the presence of her mate. Tribulation would come again soon enough.

************

“So, Reverend… what’s your take on all this? Surely this goes against everything you believe in.”

Daniel looked around to see a number of eyes staring back at him. The warriors of the People had settled on one side of the meadow, listening to the conversation but making little contribution of their own. The townsmen on the other hand stopped speaking to pay close attention to the Marshal and pastor. Daniel Hawkins hadn’t been nearly as vocal in his disapproval of Reb Stone or her bride as his wife and many of the other women in the town had been. But he hadn’t stood up for her either.

So they were anxious to hear his thoughts now.

“I’ve never had anything against Reb Stone and I don’t think Mordecai Washburn is in his right thinking mind to believe that he has a right to revenge where she is concerned. That said, I can’t condone her marriage to another woman… and an Injun woman at that.”

“Why?” Honaw demanded fiercely before Keez could think to stop him. “Why you think Donoma not good for Koko Kanti?”

Daniel looked bewildered. He hadn’t even thought about the fact that the natives could understand him well enough to not only get angry with him, but argue back. “It… it goes against everything I know… everything I’ve been taught.”

“Maybe you need better teacher. Great Spirit teaches us find beauty and wisdom in all things. We all children of Great Spirit.”

“Then why do you fight?” Daniel asked reasonably. “If all are children of this Great Spirit of yours, why do you continue to fight one another?”

“Not all accept teachings – we fight to protect what ours… homes, families, life.”

“And you believe Reb and Donoma should be mated.”

“Not for me to choose – share heart, share soul – one together.”

Daniel nodded. “I’ll try to remember that.” He looked squarely at Honaw. “I will tell you I don’t believe they deserve the trouble that Washburn is tying to cause for them. Reb Stone has been a force for good in this territory. I don’t want to see anything happen to her… or to Donoma for that matter. Personally, I’d just like for this to be over and done with sooner rather than later. Preferably without too many deaths.”

“You do understand that Washburn is gonna have to die, right, Reverend? He’s not gonna leave Reb alone until he’s dead and buried.”

“I know that, Marshal… doesn’t mean I can’t hope for a quick and bloodless resolution.” Murphy just shook his head, but didn’t comment. There were just some arguments that weren’t worth having.

************

“‘Bout Goddamn time!” Washburn roared when he was finally admitted into Spencer’s office. He’d heard the bell ring signaling lunch and had burst in, expecting to be shown into the inner sanctum immediately. But the door had been locked and Clemmons hadn’t been around to introduce him. No amount of raging and rattling the door had helped his cause and Washburn had sat down to wait him out. He had no way of knowing that Spencer always ate last, ensuring that his men were fed first. It was a small gesture, but one that had earned him respect from those that served under him.

When the second bell rang, Spencer opened his door and Washburn pushed his way in with vulgarity. “Where’s lunch?” he demanded.

“All the men should have been served now. The second bell is my call to the mess hall. It means the men have been fed and now I can eat.”

“Are you telling me the leader of the outpost doesn’t rate private service? That you eat the sloppy seconds and leftovers?” Washburn guffawed in disbelief.

“No. I’m telling you that by allowing the men to eat first, it raises their respect for me as a leader. It shows them I’m willing to look out for them.”

Washburn snorted. “You keep believing that, boy.” That ended the conversation and they crossed the compound in silence. When they reached the mess hall, Washburn held the door open and motioned Spencer in front of him with a flourish. “After you, boy… by all means.”

Spencer stepped in and silence fell except for the scraping of chairs as the men rose in a single wave. “As you were,” he said, gesturing them back to their seats. He moved to the empty table that was reserved for him, waiting for Washburn to join him. Spencer indicated one chair while assuming a seat in the other.

Mordecai grunted but took the seat he was offered. Spencer waited until there were plates in front of both of them before he spoke.

“Now what exactly can I do for you, Mr. Washburn? I thought we had everything settled yesterday.”

“I’d prefer to speak privately,” looking around the still busy mess hall pointedly.

“Mr. Washburn,” Spencer said confidently and quietly enough that he would not be overheard, “despite your loss, the United States Army is not here to be at your beck and call. I do have other work that needs attending. Now….” He stopped speaking and winced when Washburn’s hand covered his wrist and squeezed more than was necessary to gain his attention

“Now you listen to me, boy,” clutching tightly and ignoring Spencer’s wince of pain. “I want my revenge against Reb Stone and you’re gonna make damn sure I get it. So you can either provide the men I need to hold the town or stay the hell outta my way.”

“And if I don’t?” Spencer asked calmly.

“You ain’t got the balls to do otherwise,” Mordecai sneered. “Or you’d have already done something. Besides, if you don’t, I’ll make sure that the little woman you’re sweet on is the first to suffer for your stupidity.” He grinned maliciously at the look of surprise etched on Spencer’s face. “Don’t ever think you can get one over on me, boy. I been around a long, long time… with good reason.”

“You wouldn’t….”

“You wanna try me, boy? I got way less to lose than you do. I know you got men in your command that don’t mind getting their hands a little dirty – they’ve been wrangling horses for me right out from under the Army’s nose for years.”

“I’ll see what I can do. I won’t order this, but if I can find volunteers, I’ll send them your way. Otherwise, I won’t interfere.”

“See that you don’t,” Washburn commanded with a final squeeze before releasing Spencer’s hand. “I’ll have my revenge on that woman one way or another. You don’t wanna get in my way.”

The Colonel shuddered at the look of madness that stared back at him from Mordecai Washburn’s eyes. He wondered how long the man had been crazy, then realized it didn’t matter. “So,” he asked after clearing his throat and leaning back in his seat, “what exactly are you planning?”

Washburn shook his head. “That don’t concern you. You just make sure to stay outta my way and no one but Stone and her little whore’ll get hurt. You get in my way and the blood of everyone who dies’ll be on your hands. And people will die – I promise you that.”

“What’s to stop me from arresting you right now?”

Washburn chuckled and the sound sent a chill skittering down Spencer’s spine. “I have a friend keeping an eye on your mama, boy. Someone who needs to hear from me regularly. You’d hate for anything to happen to her.”

The Colonel’s face suffused with blood, turning it an alarming shade of red. “You wouldn’t!!” he growled.

“Try me,” Washburn invited gleefully. “Now do we understand one another?”

“Perfectly,” Spencer spat between clenched teeth.

“Good,” putting his fork down and wiping his mouth with surprising civility. “I thank you for lunch, but I need to get going. Things to do, you know.” He pushed his chair back from the table, then looked at Spencer again. “When I have things set, I’ll need you to send someone out to fetch Stone to me. Shouldn’t be but a couple days.”

Spencer nodded but didn’t speak. He was afraid his voice would crack in his rage.

“Good – I’ll let you know.” Washburn turned and walked out of the mess hall and headed back to town.

Spencer rubbed a hand over his face then signaled for the server to collect Washburn’s plate. Then he attacked his food with stolid determination.

************

“Ya know, Stone,” Stephen Murphy spoke around a mouthful of food. “I’m startin’ to think I should hate you.” Koko blinked blue eyes and looked at Donoma before turning back to the Marshal with a questioning gaze. “I mean, it’s not enough you got a beautiful wife,” watching the blush crawl up Donoma’s sun-kissed skin. “But you had to go and get one who could cook straight off.”

Donoma and Koko exchanged glances and then began laughing. The warriors took up the effort and only the white men were left wondering what was so humorous about the Marshal’s words. After noting the quizzical looks being directed their way, Koko cleared her throat awkwardly and tried to quell the laughter. It took a moment or two and she was unable to maintain eye contact with Donoma, but after a short time, she was able to hold Murphy’s eyes again.

“Sorry,” she said with the slightest tremor in her voice. “You’re right… Donoma is a wonderful cook, and it was amazing to have that in my life again. But she did have to learn, Stephen. She has been cooking for a number of years. It’s not something she just started doing after we were joined.”

Murphy cut his eyes in Donoma’s direction, only to see her nodding her agreement. “Not always pretty,” she confirmed succinctly, causing Murphy to choke on his food.

“Well, this is very good, Mrs. Stone.” The rest nodded enthusiastically.

“I don’t eat this good now an’ I been married for ten years,” one of the men commented. The rest snickered, including the warriors. They had all been there at some point.

“So once we’ve eaten, are we headin’ out?”

Koko looked up at the sky. “Another hour. We don’t wanna get there too early. Besides, it’ll take that long to clean everything up before we leave,” motioning to the dishes they were all using.

“All right, boys,” Murphy said as he stood. “You heard the boss. Let’s get this stuff cleaned up and then Reb can tell us how we’re gonna bring Washburn down.”

************

“I gots me a bad feelin’ ’bout dis, Miss Kitty,” Big Mama commented as they sat around the kitchen table. Kitty had refused to open the saloon for business with Washburn in town and while they were all enjoying the unexpected time off, it made for a very odd situation. The women of the town had followed her example and kept the remainder of the businesses closed, contributing to the ghost town feeling that was prevalent throughout the town.

Kitty nodded her head. “Me too, Big Mama. I don’t see much good comin’ of all this. I just hope Daniel found Reb. Otherwise it could get real ugly, real quick.”

“You really think Reb’ll be able to help us out?”

Kitty smiled. “You really think she’d be able to stay away?”

Big Mama chuckled, her chest heaving with laughter. “Uh uh. Dat’n gots a thing for trouble.”

“Wonder how Donoma puts up with it?”

“Honey, I think Donoma’s drawn to it as well. How’s else you’d be ‘splainin’ Reb?”

Kitty laughed heartily. “Good point. Wonder if Donoma’ll be coming along?”

Big Mama snorted. “Can ya see dat chile being left behin’? Regardless of what Reb be wantin’?”

“No. This could be very interestin’.”

“I’m thinkin’ ya can count on dat.”

************

Darkness had long since fallen when the town finally came into sight. The men had been given their instructions and silently separated to head to their own homes. The warriors followed Koko’s silent directions, splitting up and making their way to various roofs and other lookout areas they would be using to defeat Washburn.

Murphy left them, heading straight to his office where he had a little area in the back for living. Donoma and Koko continued on down the road to the saloon, confident Kitty would let them in.

It was dark – something Koko had never seen – so she went around back to the kitchen and rapped lightly on the door. Big Mama snatched the door open, rolling pin in hand. When she realized who was standing there, a broad smile broke the solid black of her face and she opened the door wider to let them both come in. Koko motioned to their horses and Big Mama nodded, gesturing to the small stable behind the brothel. It was normally used for clients, but as there were none at the moment….

Koko took both bridles, ignoring the pointed look she got from Donoma and ushering the smaller woman into the kitchen with one hand before heading to the stable with the horses in tow. Donoma crossed her arms and huffed, but went into the kitchen.
Big Mama put down her rolling pin and poured up two glasses of milk, then set a plate of cookies on the table between them.

She nudged the plate in Donoma’s direction and raised an expressive eyebrow. Donoma chuckled at the face – it reminded her of Litonya during much of her growing up years. Both of Big Mama’s eyebrows went up at the sound and she voiced her question aloud.

“Whatcha laughin’ at, chile?”

Donoma’s laughter morphed into a smile and she picked up a cookie and nibbled after another pointed glance. “You remind me of Nahko’e. Same face.”

Big Mama frowned thoughtfully over Donoma’s words then allowed a smile to cross her face. “All mamas be dat way. Keeps de young’uns in line.”

“Works good,” Donoma agreed succinctly. Then the door opened and Koko walked in just as Kitty and Ginger came down the stairs.

“Guess we’ll be needin’ more milk,” Big Mama sighed as she got up to get more glasses. The rest sat down and waited for Koko to fill them in on what was going on.
Chapter XLVI
Washburn came downstairs early the following morning to find Riggins already sitting at the same table he’d been sitting at the morning before. He took the seat across from his foreman and steepled his fingers in front of his face while he waited for Mrs. Carver to pour his coffee. He nodded his thanks and she moved off.

“I spoke with Spencer,” he said tersely. “He’s gonna send me over some volunteers – we need to be ready for them. I want you to send the boys around… find the best places to stake out so we can hold the town when the men return. I’d rather keep this from becoming a bloodbath if we can help it.”

“All right, boss.”

“Tell ’em to plan for a siege – they could be there for a day or two while we wait for Stone.”

“You want ’em to set up now?”

Washburn considered for a moment then shook his head. “No – just have ’em find the best places to ensure we can hold the town for as long as we need to. Long enough for me to get my justice from Stone. They can start camping out once we send for her.”

“You really think she’ll come runnin’… knowing it’s a trap?”

Washburn chuckled. “I’m sure she will. One thing you learn about do-gooders, Riggins – they can’t resist the opportunity to play hero. If she thinks she can save lives by showing up here… even knowing it’s a trap… she’ll be here. It’s in her nature.”

“And what about the townspeople?”

“What about ’em? The men are gone and the women won’t interfere… especially with the Army on our side. This should be quick and fairly painless. And the lawman won’t be able to say a word because it’ll all be open and aboveboard.”

Riggins looked skeptical, but kept his mouth shut. Somehow he didn’t think angering Washburn any further would help matters, but he silently wondered when things had gotten out of control. They had certainly made a lot more sense when Mordecai had explained them back on the ranch. Now, however, Riggins was becoming less and less sure of that and more and more certain that his boss had slipped into madness.

Riggins stood and clapped his hat onto his head. “I’ll round up the boys and give ’em their instructions. You got any idea when all this might go down, boss?”

“Couple days, I think. Soon’s I get them Army volunteers, I’ll have Spencer send for Stone. Then it’s just a matter of waiting for her to get here.”

They never saw Matthew Carver slip out the back way and into the barn to wait.

************

Before the sun had peeked above the horizon, Sergeant Jake Clemmons had talked to a number of men he trusted – men he knew would favor Reb Stone over Mordecai Washburn… especially when they heard the story he had to tell them. Many of them found his accusation of the Colonel a little beyond the pale, but they had all trusted Stone with their lives at one time or another and found that trust well-founded. In fact, many appreciated being able to repay her efforts on their behalf.

So in the coming dawn, they mounted up and headed into the town, determined to protect the town – and Reb Stone – from Mordecai Washburn. They had no way of knowing things were already in motion.

************

Colonel John Spencer looked at himself in the mirror by the flickering light of the lamp. He had sent his boy away this morning, not desiring any witnesses as he prepared himself for this particular day. He’d finished his letter to the Secretary of the Army after his luncheon with Washburn, resigning his commission and explaining the reasons why. He had no doubt he’d end up in stocks before it was all said and done, but for the first night in years, he’d slept the sleep of the innocent.

Now in the pre-dawn, he dressed in his finest uniform, wanting to make a statement even Mordecai Washburn could understand. He would not stop Mordecai from challenging Reb Stone – it was the only way the nightmare could end now. But he would make sure that the Army was ready to deal with whatever aftermath there was… especially if Washburn got lucky and Stone died. He suspected the town would riot.

Either way, Washburn was a walking dead man.

He headed to his office, surprised not to find Clemmons already there. Spencer could count on one hand the number of times
he’d beaten the sergeant to the office. Not wanting to wait for his arrival, Spencer sent a runner out to his captains, calling them into his office for a meeting. It was time they knew what was going on – at least partially. There were some parts he wasn’t willing to share with them. His shame would be public knowledge soon enough.

It didn’t take them long to gather, and it only took a few minutes for them to settle down once he began to speak.

“All of you have heard the rumors accusing Reb Stone of being a horse thief. Some information has come to my attention indicating that the thief is in fact connected to Mordecai Washburn, but at the moment, I don’t have enough conclusive proof to arrest him. However, I do know that the man is intent on seeking revenge on Stone for the death of his two sons.”

“Colonel, Reuben’s death was brought on by a challenge from Reuben himself. And Leroy was trampled by a horse. How are either of those Stone’s fault?”

“They’re not,” Spencer agreed succinctly. “But Washburn is determined to have his day with her – claims it’s the justice he is owed as the father of two sons dead at her hand. And we all know that Stone won’t dismiss his challenge. He will continue to hunt her until she answers his challenge.”

“So what do we do? As far as I know, she isn’t even in town.”

“I figure to send someone after her to bring her back and have the rest of the men on rotating shifts to keep an eye on things until she gets back. I don’t think Washburn is stupid enough to do anything to the town or the people there, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. He seems more than a little obsessed with Stone and I don’t want her absence to provoke him into doing something dumb.”

“I’ll set up a schedule,” Spencer’s second in command volunteered. “We’ll put the men on a four hour rotating schedule with an hour overlap to ensure there is always plenty of coverage.”

Spencer nodded. “That sounds good, Robert. With any luck this won’t last too long, but have the men prepare as if it was going to be a long campaign. I think things will move swiftly once Stone returns to town, but if she is out hunting another bounty, it could be a while before she’s found. We don’t want the townsfolk getting antsy and we don’t want Washburn getting stupid.”

“Why don’t we just arrest him?” from the youngest captain. Smiles and snickers were quickly hidden and every man in the room focused his attention on the table in front of him. Spencer cleared his throat.

“Mordecai Washburn is a well-respected and very influential man in any number of circles. We can’t arrest on suspicion… we need proof. If we can find that, we can arrest him. Until then, it is too risky. It’s asking for bad things to happen – to us and to the town. So for now just keep your eyes and ears open.”

“Meanwhile,” Spencer continued, “I’m going to go talk to the Marshal. With any luck, he’ll be able to find some proof. Make our job easier. Major, send out our fastest rider to Stone’s place. Maybe she and her mate are there – or at least maybe the mate will know where we can find her.” He paused. “Actually, send a small contingent – if Stone isn’t home, most can try to pick up her trail while the rest report back here. That way we’ll know to send out more search parties if necessary.”

“Where does she live, Colonel?”

“Murphy knows. Send the fastest man to me – Murphy can give him directions and he can lead the rest.”

The Major nodded. “Very well, sir. I’ll have them ready to go within the hour.”

“Fine. Hopefully it won’t take long to settle this – one way or another.”

“You think Stone will lose?”

“I think Washburn will try to stack the deck. I just hope we can prevent him from doing any real damage.”

“We will, Colonel. He may be an important man where he comes from, but this is our home. He doesn’t get to come in here and start making his own rules.”

“Agreed. But first we need to find Stone. You all have your assignments. Move out.”

As one body the men rose from the table and filed out the door. Only when he was alone again did he sit back in the chair and contemplate the bizarreness of fate that now hung over his head like Damocles’ sword. He hoped this would end sooner rather than later.

With a sigh, Spencer rose from his seat and headed to the stockyard. He wanted to be ready to go when the chosen rider arrived. There were still things to do.

************

“Are you ready, warrior?” Donoma asked as she combed her fingers through Koko’s thick hair. Koko purred in pure pleasure for a moment, then rolled over until she was laying on her side. One arm held Donoma at the hips possessively while she propped her head up on the other.

“Oh yes, ka’eskone. Once Washburn is dealt with, we can begin the next chapter of our lives together. We will go where none can find us and where no one will think to look. But he must be taken care of first. I will not have my past hanging over our future.”

“Do you really believe he would pursue us, Koko?”

“I do,” Koko replied without hesitation. “I believe this has gone beyond justice or even revenge. I think Washburn is obsessed. The facts no longer matter – the only thing he is focused on is killing me.”

“He is in for something of a surprise then. I will not allow that to happen,” she added with a matter-of-factness in her expression that was belied by the fierceness of her tone.

“Ka’eskone….”

“NO, Koko!” Donoma’s green eyes betraying her fury and fear even as she slid from the bed and Koko’s grasp. “I will not allow Mordecai Washburn to take from me what is mine. I have only just found you again. I will not lose you… especially not to a man who has no honor and no scruples.”

“Why do you say that, ka’eskone? You have never even met the man,” sitting up and swinging her legs over the edge of the bed as she watched Donoma pace mere feet from her.

“But I did meet his sons. One who shot me for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the other who challenged you for his own petty jealousies and desire for revenge. A man who raises his sons with so little regard for others obviously has no moral code worth mentioning.”

“You are very wise, ka’eskone,” standing and taking Donoma into her embrace.

“I am very honest, Koko Kanti. I will not allow Mordecai Washburn to destroy us.”

“Do not worry, Nutta. He is not man enough to do so alone, and with the warriors already in place to ensure he cannot use his men to kill me from behind….”

“I will still be there to watch your back, Nutta. I will not let you face this alone.”

“That is not the way of things, Donoma. When I call him out….”

“I will be right there. Do not ask me not to be, warrior. It is my place.”

Koko sighed. She should have known it would not be easy to convince Donoma otherwise. She tightened her hold on Donoma’s body until she could feel her heartbeat. “It is your place, ka’eskone. But you will need to stand on the sidewalk away from the line of fire… not in the middle of the street with me.”

“No, Koko Kanti. I will stand beside you. It is my place,” her voice fierce and adamant, poking Koko’s chest with her finger to emphasize her point.

“Ka’eskone, I cannot put you in danger like that.”

“You are not putting me there, warrior. It is where I need to be.”

“But you are putting me in danger, Donoma,” Koko offered softly. She held on as her words sunk into Donoma’s consciousness and hurt filled the green eyes while she tried to pull away. “Ka’eskone,” keeping one arm firmly around Donoma’s waist even as she cupped Donoma’s face with her other hand to bring their eyes level. Donoma kept her eyes firmly on the ground. “Donoma,” she coaxed softly, biting her lip when watery green eyes finally met hers.

“Oh beloved,” she whispered. “I did not mean to hurt you, but the truth is that if you are standing beside me, Washburn will use that. He will take aim at you instead of me and I cannot live with the possibility of you being hurt… or worse… because of me. If his focus is solely on me, he will be the only one to die today.”

“You are so certain.”

“I am, ka’eskone. You yourself commented on his lack of honor. Do you not think he would use you against me?”

“He might try, but he will not succeed. I will not allow it. But for your peace of mind, I will stand with Kitty and Big Mama.”

“Thank you, Donoma.”

“Just make certain you eliminate the threat to us, warrior. I have no desire to live with this hanging over our heads for the rest of our lives. I want to spend our life together living.”

Koko smiled. “That is reason enough, ka’eskone.” She dipped her head and took possession of Donoma’s mouth until she felt them slipping to the floor. They separated, breathing hard and stared at one another with heavily-lidded eyes. “As is that,” Koko added when she could speak again.

“Remember that, beloved. We have unfinished business now.”

“You are a cruel woman, Donoma Chepi.”

“Yes, but now you have the motivation you need to finish this.” She eased out of Koko’s arms and pulled her nightgown over her head. “You should get dressed, Koko Kanti. Mordecai Washburn does not get to see you as I do… and neither does anyone else.”

“Possessive much, ka’eskone?” Koko asked with a grin as she began to dress.

“Only with things that matter, warrior,” Donoma confessed impishly. “Now let us go put an end to this.”

“After breakfast,” Koko replied. “Big Mama will not let us start the day without it.” Donoma took Koko’s hand and together they headed downstairs.

************

Clemmons led his small brigade around to the back of the Marshal’s office, not wanting to announce their presence to Washburn and the town. They dismounted and went into the stable – it was then that they realized Murphy’s horse was there. They looked at Clemmons.

“I think it means the Marshal has already returned; I believe he left immediately after speaking to me. But in that case, the men of the town are here and probably Reb Stone as well.”

“You’d be right about that, Sergeant,” came a gravelly voice from the door. “Can I ask what the Army is doin’ in my stable?”

“I told you we’d keep an eye on things, Marshal. Jones here was supposed to come find you… get directions to Stone’s place. I think there’s somethin’ you need to be aware of.” Clemmons explained what he’d overheard in the Colonel’s office. “So we decided to make sure Washburn can’t use the town to his advantage. The folks here deserve better than to be pawns in his game.”

“What do you plan to do?”

“We plan to keep him honest,” looking up at the roofline of the buildings along the street.

“In that case, maybe I oughtta introduce ya to the warriors of the People – Reb and Donoma’s friends. They’ve already staked out spots, but I’m bettin’ they wouldn’t mind a little extra firepower.”

“Lead the way, Marshal. We don’t plan to miss out on this.”

************

“Ah, Colonel,” Washburn welcomed snidely as he stepped into the hotel dining room. The sun, now fully up, was slowly making its way across the sky and lighting the room enough that Mrs. Carver walked out of the kitchen and blew out the lanterns before collecting them. Washburn waited until she was done before he returned his attention to Spencer. “Have you brought my volunteers?”

“There are no volunteers, Washburn. Too many are indebted to Stone and the rest feel no debt to you at all. You’re on your own.”

“Fine,” Washburn snarled. “Just keep them outta my way. This’ll be over in a day or two and then you can go back to business as usual. Don’t know why you didn’t take care of this damned woman in the first place.”

“Because she was never a threat. Until your sons went up against her and accused her of their own misdeeds, she wasn’t a problem.”

“That’s enough, boy!”

Whatever Spencer had been going to say in reply was lost when Reb Stone called out from the street. “Washburn!! C’mon out here! We’ve got business to settle!!”

Mordecai turned to Spencer in a rage. “When the hell did she get back?? I’m not ready!!” He pushed the colonel aside and rushed to the window to find Stone standing in the middle of the street directly across from him. He looked back at Spencer. “Find Riggins and have him get the men into place.”

“I don’t think so, Washburn – you’re on your own,” carefully enunciating his words. Then he crumpled in shock when Washburn put a slug in his chest, creeping right into his personal space to muffle the sound when he pulled the trigger.

“That’s one problem solved,” Mordecai said dispassionately, spitting at Spencer’s body in contempt. Then he walked calmly into the street. The time had come to eliminate Reb Stone, once and for all.
Chapter XLVII
Mordecai Washburn stepped out of the hotel into the street, carefully observing his surroundings. Reb Stone stood across from him, just off the sidewalk in front of the brothel. Her whore was just behind her, sandwiched between the old nigger woman and the madam whore. He sneered – he’d have a good shot at her once Stone walked to the middle of the street.

He looked around, noting the Injuns and soldiers who returned his regard from the rooftops of every building in the town. He growled, realizing Spencer had, in the end, betrayed him. Further investigation revealed the men in town had returned and were standing in the doorways of their businesses.

Washburn didn’t see Riggins or any of his other cowboys and he smirked. Had they managed to get into position behind the Injuns and soldiers already in place? Were they getting into position, recognizing that trouble had arrived before they were fully prepared to meet it? He had no way of knowing, but Mordecai Washburn knew he’d run out of time.

“Stackin’ the deck a little, Stone?” motioning around them. “‘Fraid you couldn’t handle an old man by yourself?”

“Hedgin’ my bets, Washburn. I’m happy to take care of you by myself – the rest are here to make sure you don’t try to cheat.” There was a scuffle on the roof above them and Reb grinned. “See, my warrior advisor looks out for me; she’s never steered me wrong. She didn’t trust your honor.”

Washburn snorted. “You let your little whore advise ya? Damn, Stone… that’s rich.” Whatever else he might have said was lost in a choking sound as Reb grabbed Mordecai Washburn by the balls and twisted, smiling as he grimaced in reaction.

“You watch your mouth, Washburn. You don’t have to like or respect me, but you disrespect her again and I’ll take you apart with my hands. I don’t need a gun to beat you. You got me?”

She didn’t even see him move, but she felt the burn of the knife as he swiped it against her midsection. She clenched her hand once more before she released her grip on his manhood and stepped back, watching him slide to the ground. Reb turned to Donoma and rubbed her hand across her belly, wincing when she scraped against cut skin.

She felt him move behind her before she saw it and she caught his arm, twisting until she heard a satisfying snap. Washburn screamed.

“Oh, that sounded painful, Mordecai. Does it hurt?” taunting him, throwing him from her.

“Bitch!” he growled through gritted teeth, holding his arm close to his body as he remained kneeling on the ground. Reb smirked and stepped away from him again, not turning her back. She glanced at Donoma and the expression on her face caused her to straighten and look at Washburn with serious intent.

“Why, Washburn? If you and your boys had just left me alone, it woulda never come to this. I wanna know why.”

He struggled to his feet. “Why should I tell you, Stone? What’s it gonna get me?”

“A quick, fairly painless death.”

Washburn choked on his laughter, wincing at the pain that lanced through his body and shaking his head. “It’d be worth it to me to leave you wondering for the rest of your life.” He gave another strangled chuckle. “Besides, who’s to say you’d win?” letting his eyes slide to one side.

Reb heard the single cock of a revolver’s hammer followed by multiple cocks of shotguns and pistols as every man in town – and some women – raised their own weapons. She arched her eyebrow at him. “Who’s to say I wouldn’t?”

“The beauty of this,” Washburn croaked out as he struggled to stand upright, “is that I win either way,” motioning to where Donoma stood. “She dies either way, and with all these guns shooting, you’ll die with me… but not before you watch your whore die first.”

Riggins stood behind Donoma, his six-shooter cocked and aimed steadily at her head. Koko met Donoma’s eyes for a long moment. “You’re makin’ a number of mistaken assumptions, Washburn,” Reb informed the man without letting her eyes leave Donoma’s. “The first bein’ that she needs my help to get out of this situation. You forget Donoma Chepi’s a seer who was trained in the ways of the People. She doesn’t need me.”

“How fortunate,” Washburn growled as he reached for his gun. Then a number of things happened simultaneously.

Donoma lifted her arm, throwing the knife she’d been palming even as Riggins shifted his aim to her left and pulled the trigger. Honaw and Keezheekoni let arrows fly from their bows. And Stephen Murphy didn’t hesitate to shoot Mordecai Washburn in the back.

Time seemed to stand still as Washburn’s body absorbed the various missiles that had been directed towards it and he realized that he was in fact dying. As that idea sank into his consciousness, his body slid to the ground and his last thought was malicious glee that Stone would never know why. Then he gurgled his last breath and died.

The silence that fell as Washburn dropped dead was complete – for a very long moment, not even the sound of breathing could be heard. Then Donoma ran to Koko and the tableau was broken by the movement, only to find a new one being created as everyone watched them come together in a timeless embrace.

The town and everyone in it faded away as their bodies met in a hug that melded them into a single being. Donoma clung to Koko, taking comfort in the heartbeat that thudded against her own and feeling her shaking slowly subside as the reality of Koko’s solid warmth soaked into her bones.

Donoma pulled back just slightly, enough to allow her bring her hand up to Koko’s face, gently tracing the planes and hollows she had grown to love so long ago. “You are all right, warrior?” she asked, remembering the cut Washburn had inflicted on Koko’s belly.

“I am fine, ka’eskone. It is only a scratch.” She cupped Donoma’s cheek with one hand. “How are you, Nutta? What you did….”

“What I did I would do again without hesitation, Koko Kanti. He threatened what was mine.”

Despite everything, Koko smiled. “Do you know how that makes me feel, Donoma? To know that you love me so much….” Donoma smiled.

“Of course I do, warrior. You do the same for me every day. Why would I do less?”

Koko pulled her in for another hug and Donoma surrendered herself willingly. Then their lips met and the silence broke into whoops and hollers from the cowboys, the whores and the businessmen. The women simply stared, not sure whether to be jealous of the love and passion so obviously on display or disgusted by the fact it was two women who shared it. Then it didn’t matter as they separated sporting twin blushes at the cacophony of noise that surrounded them.

Stephen Murphy was the first to approach them, stepping over Washburn’s body and ushering them towards the saloon doors. A nod of his head garnered him several attentive businessmen, including Matthew Carver and the Reverend Daniel Hawkins.

“Take Washburn’s body to the undertaker and then….” A shrill scream from the hotel cut him off mid-sentence. “Carver, you come with me. The rest of you look after Washburn, except you Reverend. I need you to find Sergeant Clemmons and Donoma’s brother Honaw and bring them to the saloon.”

The men nodded and scattered to do his bidding. Koko and Donoma were already inside the brothel when Murphy and Carver entered the hotel. Matthew immediately crossed to his wife, taking her in his arms and turning her away from John Spencer’s dead body sprawled on the floor. Murphy knelt down and pulled the colonel’s eyelids down over his eyes, wishing there was something he could do about the gaping mouth.

“Matt, take your wife into the kitchen, then I need your help to move him over to the undertaker as well. I’ll get some of the townsfolk in here to help clean up the mess,” motioning to the blood currently sluggishly spreading across the floor.

“I’m all right, Marshal,” the woman replied shakily. “I wouldn’t turn down some help though.”

“Yes ma’am,” he answered respectfully. “Let us get him moved and we’ll see about getting you some help.” She nodded and walked into the kitchen. Murphy and Carver lifted up Spencer’s body between them and carried him out into the street, causing another hush to fall as the townsfolk recognized their burden as a human being. Without a word, several of the men came to their aid, while a few of the women moved into the hotel to help with the clean-up.

When Spencer’s body had been carefully placed beside Washburn’s, Murphy headed back out the door.

“Marshal?”

“I need to go check on Reb and her mate. And I’ve gotta talk to Washburn’s man Riggins. Have the cowboys all been rounded up?”

“Yes, Marshal,” the undertaker replied. “All but one came peacefully and he’s the one who got into the scuffle on the roof with that Injun and the sergeant. Woody’s at your office keeping an eye on ’em. Joe and Marty went with him to help.”

“Good enough then,” Murphy commented. “Ya got this?”

“We got it handled, Marshal. G’wan.”

Murphy nodded and walked out the door and headed back down to the saloon.

Keez and Honaw stood uneasily inside the door, backs to the wall where they could see the comings and goings of practically the entire town from their vantage point. Daniel Hawkins sat at a table near them with Jake Clemmons, Riggins, Kitty and Big Mama. Reb Stone and Donoma Chepi were nowhere in sight. Murphy raised a questioning eyebrow to Kitty.

“They’re upstairs,” shaking her head when he stepped that direction. “I wouldn’t, Stephen.”

“But….” Then he blushed beet red as he realized the implications of her words and tone. “Oh.”

“Donoma needed to take care of the cut on Reb’s belly. And she seemed a little shaken up by everything.”

“First kill,” Honaw said bluntly. “Donoma healer. Never take life – always fight with death to keep it.”

“Well, in fairness, her blow might not have been the killin’ shot. Several of us in this room coulda been the one to kill Washburn.”

“Was Donoma… knife first to reach him, then bullets, then arrow. I saw,” Keez stated with confidence.

“Kezzheekoni our best spotter,” Honaw boasted proudly.

“I’m thinkin’,” the Marshal agreed softly.

“They be down when they’s ready an’ not b’fore,” Big Mama said.

“Well in the meantime, I’d like a few answers,” directing his gaze at Riggins and watching the rest of them follow suit. Riggins sat up straighter and folded his hands on the table.

“I’ll do the best I can, Marshal. Whaddya wanna know?”

“I wanna know what Washburn’s problem was… and don’t sit there and tell me it was Reb’s havin’ a wife or ’cause she was the reason his boys died. We both know that’s a lie. And I wanna know what made you turn on him – ’cause Donoma was never a target for you, was she?”

“What makes you say that, Marshal? My gun was pointed at her head.”

Murphy smirked. “If you’d been an actual threat, Big Mama and Kitty would have reacted. They wouldn’t’ve just stood there. And given Donoma’s ability to do what she did to Washburn, I’m thinkin’ she coulda taken you out if she’d’ve needed to.”

Riggins nodded. “I agree. And you’re right. I told her I wasn’t there for her.” He shivered involuntarily. “She’s a very intense young woman – looked right through me with those eyes of hers.”

The entire table nodded in agreement. They’d all felt it when they met those green eyes for the first time.

“So what’s the deal with Washburn, Riggins? I’m lookin’ for a reason to let you and your cowboys go home, but you’re gonna have to give me somethin’. Especially since you all came in here lookin’ to start trouble with Stone.”

“That’s not true, Marshal,” holding up his hands before Murphy could dispute his words. “Washburn came lookin’ for trouble and I came expectin’ it. But the boys were just following his orders.”

Stephen Murphy scratched his chin as he contemplated Riggins’ words. “All right,” he concurred after a few minutes of silence.
“I guess I can understand that. But the question still remains – why? What was his obsession with her based on? She never did anything intentional to draw his attention that I could ever figure out.”

“It wasn’t her as much as what she was.”

“‘Scuse me?”

“Yeah,” came a voice from the top of the stairs. “I’d kinda like to hear this as well.” Koko took Donoma’s hand in hers and led them downstairs and to the table. Hawkins stood and grabbed two more chairs, placing them at the table and waiting for the women to be seated before he resumed his place.

“Reb Stone – you,” Riggins fumbled, motioning to Koko now casually seated across from him still holding Donoma’s hand, “are a woman – a successful woman in a man’s world, bringing men to justice. On top of that, you are a woman who likes women.”

“I am a warrior and the woman who loves Donoma Chepi.”

Riggins blinked at her correction, but nodded his head in agreement. “Now you have to understand that I got this from him when he was drunk one night, so it never made a whole hell of a lot of sense to me… pardon me, Missus,” he said to Donoma. Kitty and Big Mama looked their outrage at one another, but Riggins missed the byplay. “From what I could gather, the boss’s wife left him when Malcolm was a baby. She left him for a woman a lot like you – strong-minded, confident, making her own way in a man’s world without apology.”

Riggins looked around and noticed he had a captive audience. “Mordecai Washburn was a hard man. But when the boys were little, he needed all the help he could get and he hired a female cowboy. I dunno what happened – boss never shared the details. All’s I know is that when that cowgirl left, his missus left with her.”

“So he was projecting?”

“Partly,” Riggins nodded. “Part of it was you kept thwartin’ them at ever’ turn. It started with that horse – when Leroy whined to his daddy, it brought you to the boss’s attention. Then you became a thorn in his side… refusing to join him and pickin’ up some of his best allies as outlaws.”

“They *were* outlaws.”

“I know, Miz Stone, but I’m tellin’ you why Mordecai Washburn became so obsessed with you. You were a reminder of ever’thin’ he hated. He decided destroyin’ you would give him back ever’thin’ he’d lost.”

“Washburn stupid man,” Donoma commented curtly.

“He certainly became that, ma’am,” Riggins agreed. “Thank you for trustin’ me earlier.”

“Good eyes – honest soul,” Domona returned shortly and Riggins’ eyes widened comically. He turned to Koko who grinned at him.

“It means she trusts you, Riggins. Be thankful.”

He looked back at Donoma. “Thank you, ma’am.” He looked at the Marshal. “Can I take my cowboys and head out?”

“I have one more question. How did Spencer fit into all this?”

“He was the boss’s illegitimate son,” seeing eyebrows pop up and eyes widen. Riggins held up his hands. “I dunno… I never asked and he never told.”

Koko shook her head. “That explains so much… makes a lot of things fall into place. Why soldiers got used for the horse operation, why they were never caught, why no one ever suspected. What a mess.”

“At least it’s over now,” Murphy said. He looked at Riggins. “You take your boys and go, but the next time I see you, it best be to do business and enjoy the things the town has to offer. Otherwise….”

Riggins held up his hands again. “No problem, Marshal. We don’t need no more trouble. We’ve had enough of that today I think to last for a real long time.”

Murphy nodded. “All right then. Make sure Malcolm understands that. C’mon and let’s go get your cowboys. It’s still early enough ya can get a good start out for home. Ya got a wagon?”

“We came prepared. We were intendin’ to take his boys home regardless.”

“We’ll stop by the undertakers and make sure he has Washburn’s body prepared for you quickly. Then we’ll ride over to the fort and deliver the news about Spence and recover the Washburn boys for you to take home.”

“Marshal, I’d like to go with you to the fort. I need to explain to my commanding officers why I was AWOL.”

“Don’t you worry none about that,” Murphy assured Clemmons. “I’ll make sure they know you boys were here at my request.”

Clemmons swallowed hard and nodded his acceptance. Despite the hardships he sometimes faced because of his choice to join the Army, Jake Clemmons was proud of his career choice and what he’d done with his life since joining. He didn’t want to lose it for doing what he still believed was the right thing. “‘Preciate it, Marshal. Much obliged.”

“The rest of you wait here, please. We’ve got unfinished business.” Then without another word, Murphy, Riggins and Clemmons walked out the doors, leaving the rest to sit in startled silence… until Donoma rose and held out her hand to Koko who accepted it with alacrity.

“Guess we’ll be in our room,” Reb said to the others, and followed Donoma upstairs.
Chapter XLVIII
“Donoma?” Koko asked as she closed the door behind them. “Are you all right, ka’eskone?” She reached out a hand to catch Donoma’s only to find herself with a body full of warm seer pressing against her length. “Donoma?” she repeated, then caught the look of wanton desire darkening the green eyes that met hers. Koko drew in a sharp breath but stood stock still, waiting to see what Donoma would do.

Donoma lifted trembling hands to Koko’s face, tenderly tracing the lines and planes there. Her eyes followed the path her hands made until she reached Koko’s collarbone and the open neck of her shirt. When she heard another sharp intake of air, Donoma let her eyes track back to Koko’s to find them darkened to almost black in passion. She smiled impishly and moved her hands back up Koko’s chest to tangle in the long hair resting at the base of her neck.

Donoma tugged gently and Koko wasted no time bending her head and taking possession of the full lips beneath hers. Without warning, Koko slid her hands down over Donoma’s ass and trailed her fingers over the back of Donoma’s thigh, causing Donoma to pull away slightly.

Koko glared at her in consternation.

“I cannot lift my legs properly in this dress,” indicting the floor-length gingham skirt she’d worn that morning in deference to their being in town. “I do not understand how the white man expects to get any manner of enjoyment out of this clothing.”

Koko snorted. “The white *man* does not have to wear it, therefore he receives plenty of enjoyment from it. It is fetching to look upon, but even more lovely once it has been removed. May I?” indicating the buttons ran up one side of Donoma’s hip, holding the skirt in place.

“If you do not, I will warrior. I need to feel your skin on mine.” She gave a tremulous sigh. “You could have been killed today, Koko Kanti. You could have died and left me alone to live without you.”

Koko stilled her hands that were playing at Donoma’s waist in an effort to remove her clothing and shifted them until she was cupping Donoma’s face and staring into her eyes intently. “I could have died today,” she acknowledged softly, “but so could you. Had Riggins not been an honorable man, he could have taken you from me in a heartbeat. It’s a possibility we live with regardless of whether we are here or with the People or out on the prairie alone. Death is simply a part of life.”

She held on when Donoma would have turned away, waiting until the green eyes came back to hers and biting her lips at the tears that sat in them. “I want you to know something, Donoma. I need for you to understand this. Even in death, I will never leave you. I will be right beside you, watching over you and loving you, waiting for you to join me so we can share eternity together. But I do not plan for that to happen for a very long time, ka’eskone. I plan to be a very old warrior before the Great Spirit calls for me to make my way to the Land of our Fathers. I have a lifetime to live with you.”

“Love me, Koko Kanti. Take me to bed and show me.”

Reverently, Koko removed Donoma’s clothing, letting her fingers trace the muscle and bone of her strong body as it was revealed to Koko’s intense gaze. When Donoma stood naked before her, Koko let her eyes wander from her toes to the top of Donoma’s fair head, her frank appreciation causing Donoma to blush. Koko grinned in response before she stepped right into Donoma’s personal space. “So beautiful,” she murmured, brushing the backs of her fingers along Donoma’s cheek before raising her chin and allowing their lips to meet.

Donoma clutched at Koko’s shirt as they kissed, then pulled away with a furrowed brow.

“What is it, ka’eskone?”

“You appear to be overdressed, warrior mine. That is unacceptable to me as I wish to look upon you.”

Koko smirked. “Then I suggest you take steps to rectify the situation. I am quite satisfied with the view I have.” Then her jaw dropped in amazement as buttons went flying across the room before they bounced to the floor. “Donoma!” she yelped in surprise before finding her lips covered by soft fingers.

“Shh,” Donoma commanded. “You suggested I rectify the situation. You do not get to complain on how I choose to do so,” pushing the now useless shirt to the floor, and reaching for the belt buckle at Koko’s waist. She spared a moment’s thought to be thankful that Koko had removed the gunbelt earlier, then her attention was taken with pushing the heavy material of Koko’s trousers down her long lean legs.

“Much better,” she commented when Koko stood naked before her. She let her eyes and hands make a slow perusal up Koko’s body as she stood, smiling at the trail of goosebumps left in the wake of her delicate touch. She teased Koko’s nipples with her fingertips before her hands continued their journey up and around to lock behind Koko’s neck.

Koko’s hands on her ass again sent shivers through her body and Donoma was thrilled to be able to follow the unspoken directive. She wrapped her legs around Koko’s slim waist, reveling in the intimate touch before being kissed senseless once more.

It occurred to Donoma to wonder if she was hurting Koko given the placement of her body in relation to the cut Washburn had inflicted – then Koko was gently depositing her on the bed and thinking went right out the window.

************

“Are you all right, Warrior? I did not hurt you, did I?”

Koko cupped Donoma’s chin and raised her lips, kissing her for a long moment. “No, ka’eskone,” she said with a smile when they parted. “You did not hurt me. I feel thoroughly and very well loved.”

“As do I, Nutta. I wish we could stay here.”

Koko sat partway up so she could see directly into Donoma’s face. “Here in town?”

“No, warrior. Here in bed.” She pulled Koko back down on top of her and relished the feeling of being completely wrapped in a living embrace as Koko naturally curled around her. “Being in your arms is the safest place in the world for me.”

“Me too,” Koko confessed. “I feel like nothing can take you away from me when you are here.”

“Even in death, warrior,” swearing her own vow to Koko. Koko leaned down and they sealed it with another kiss. “I could get used to this,” Donoma said with a smile as they separated again.

“As could I. But you are correct – we cannot remain here. Stephen will be back soon, and I would like to finish our business here today so we can leave for home tomorrow. It is time to begin our life together.”

“We did that already, warrior – I was five and you were twelve. That was our start. But I am not averse to finally being able to begin our lives together as a true couple without the past hanging over us.”

“You are a troublemaker, Donoma Chepi.”

“If you are just realizing this, Koko Kanti, we have far bigger problems than I thought.” She moved to scramble out of the bed, but found herself being pinned to the bed by long legs and arms with the threat of tickling making her squeal.

“I have not done anything yet, ka’eskone.” Koko grinned evilly and wiggled her fingers above Donoma’s face.

“I am anticipating. I am not the only troublemaker in this family.”

Koko snorted. “Time to take your medicine.”

************

The sound of squealing from upstairs made Kitty and Big Mama smile and brought the rest of the girls from their rooms where they had been stationed during the street fight.

“Guess it’s safe to come on out now,” Ginger drawled as she and the girls meandered down the stairs.

“Yeah, I shoulda come and gotten you once Stephen left. Mama’n me’ve been sitting here trying to figure out what else there is to take care of.”

“Probably wants to make sure Reb and Donoma are all right, though from the sound of things….”

“I just hope he gets back here soon. We’re burning daylight here, and we’ve lost enough revenue the past couple days ’cause of Washburn.”

“Sorry ’bout that, Kitty,” Murphy said as he walked through the door and removed his hat. “I didn’t ‘spect that to take so long.”

“Everything all right?”

“Yep. Riggins and his boys are on their way back to the ranch with specific instructions on their expected behavior if they ever return here again. And I think I got the Army as sorted as I could for the time being. It’s like a crazy house over at the fort right now.”

“What’s going on?” Reb asked from the stairs. All heads turned her way and not one face cracked a smile at her appearance, though a number of eyes twinkled. She had on a completely different shirt than she’d worn before and even her clean face and neatly braided hair could not hide the satisfaction that lingered around her entire person.

“Where’s Donoma?” Murphy asked, earning him glares from every woman at the table and snickers from Honaw and Keez. “What?” he whined plaintively. “I thought she might like to hear the story as well.” At that moment, Donoma emerged from their room and leisurely took the steps down to stand beside Koko.

Her outfit was completely different, having opted for a light pair of trousers and a shirt very similar to Koko’s. She slid her hand into Koko’s. “What did I miss?”

“Nothing. Stephen was about to tell us what is going on in the fort. Apparently, things are in quite an uproar.” She turned to the Marshal. “Tell us.”

************

“I went over with Clemmons to make sure him’n his boys didn’t get into no trouble for coming over here. See, he never told Spencer or anyone else about me needin’ the Army to keep an eye on things. He’d overheard Spencer arguin’ with Washburn and figured out somethin’ weren’t quite right with the two of ’em. So he decided to take it on himself to look out for the town, and got a few of his buddies that he trusted to help.”

“Risky.”

“Yeah, but it worked out,” Murphy said with a shrug. “However, that wasn’t the cause of the craziness. The Major wasn’t too upset about me taking the men – figured Spence had cleared it for me without letting the rest of them know. I didn’t see fit to correct him. The craziness is because of Spencer’s death and the letter Spencer left on his desk for Clemmons to find and give to Johnson. It explained everything.”

“Everything?”

“Everything,” the Marshal confirmed. “It even got me an apology from Johnson since it was clear that Spencer was working outside Army protocol on a number of things, not the least of which was that illicit horse business Washburn had running through here.”

“Did he say why, Murph?”

“Sorta. He took responsibility for a number of bad decisions on himself, but said he originally got into it as a way to please the father he’d never known.” Stephen sighed. “Washburn wasn’t a hard man – he was a jackass. Pardon me, ladies,” glancing around the table. “Seems when he was a young buck, him and Spence’s mama were sweethearts. Only Washburn took advantage of her, then skipped town when he found out she was with child. Claimed the Army shipped him out – I have people looking into that, though I don’t expect them to find much. Mordecai Washburn was a slippery sonova…. Ahem, ‘scuse me, ladies. The man was a snake.”

“So what happened, Murph? Surely Spencer knew better than to trust the man who’d run out on him and his mama.”

“One would think. But apparently Washburn gave him some sob story about the Army moving him ‘fore he could do the right thing, but that he’d tried to support them, even going so far as to get Spencer’s commission in the Army. Spencer wanted so badly to believe him that he overlooked all the glaring holes in his story.”

“How’d the horse thieving’ start?” Ginger asked. “I know how some of the enlisted men got wrangled into it, but I don’t understand how the Colonel got caught up in it.”

“Oh, that was easy. Washburn knew the cavalry needed horses and the Army had to get them from somewhere. He just convinced Spencer that there was no harm in taking a few of the best from the herd before the Army got their pick. Not really stealing, he reasoned. Just skimmin’.”

Reb shook her head. “All this because he wanted love from a father that disdained his entire existence?”

“Apparently. It seems it started out as a way for Spencer to bond with Washburn and became a way for Washburn to manipulate and control him. He stood up to him in the end though. According to Mrs. Carver, Spencer told Washburn he was on his own just before Washburn put a bullet in his belly.”

“Hell of a way to finally grow up.”

“Yeah, but at least things with Washburn are settled. Major Johnson’s assuming command of the fort until the Army sends instructions telling him otherwise. Clemmons said Spencer wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Army so something should be coming down on that eventually.”

“You think it was a confession?”

“Probably. It sounds like he planned to die today one way or another.”

After a moment’s silent contemplation on that statement, Kitty slapped her hands on the table, startling everyone. She ignored the glares she was getting, asking instead, “Now what?”

“I dunno,” Murphy shrugged. “Reb?”

“I think Donoma Chepi and I are gonna head towards the summer camp of the People. We have a joining to celebrate and I for one am not gonna be the one to deny Litonya her opportunity to have a party.” Chuckles went around the table, including loud guffaws from Honaw and Keezheekoni. “What?” she asked innocently. “I like livin’… especially now that Donoma is my wife.”

“Koko smart warrior. Know not to anger wife’s mother.” Laughter followed Keez’s pronouncement.

“How ’bout after that, Reb? Will you be comin’ back here?”

Koko and Donoma looked at one another for a long moment before turning back to Kitty. “I don’t think so, Kitty… at least not for a long time. Donoma and I want the chance to just go out there and live a little without worrying about who’s chasin’ us or what outlaw needs catchin’ or who’s got it in for me today. We’ve waited a long time for it to be just us.”

“We’ll miss ya, you know.”

“I know. We’ll miss all of you too, but we’re looking forward to it too, ya know?”

“I know,” Kitty agreed with a smile. “I remember being young once.”

“Once? You still young,” Donoma stated firmly. Kitty cupped her cheek gently.

“You’re a sweet kid, Donoma. You look after her, Reb,” waiting for the nod of agreement she knew was coming. Then she looked around at the assembled crowd. “I think we should make a party for Reb and Donoma tonight. Invite everyone, including your wife, Daniel. Time she comes down to live with the rest of us here.”

“I don’t know, Kitty, but I’ll ask.”

Kitty snorted. “Step up and be the man in your family for a change, Daniel.”

“Not fair, Kit.”

“Life’s generally not,” Kitty scoffed. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be a whore and a madam while my brother ran the local church.” Dead silence met her words and everyone looked at first at Kitty, then Daniel, then back to Kitty again. “Oh for cryin’ out loud – are we having a party tonight or what?”

“I bes’ getta cookin’,” Big Mama said as she pushed up out of her seat. “We be needin’ plenny o’ food for dis here party.”

“I’ll have Mary go around and get the rest of the women to volunteer some vittles as well,” Daniel stated, looking defiantly at Kitty. “If we’re going to give Reb and Donoma Stone a send-off, we’re going to do it up right. They deserve that much.”

“Well, then… I guess we’re havin’ a party. I’ll go let the fellas know. If they know, their wives’ll be more likely to pitch in. ‘Cause no one wants to be seen as the one who put a damper on a good time, no matter the reason for it,” Murphy said knowingly.

“Keez and I will take the warriors – we will go back to the cabin and wait for your return,” Honaw said to Koko in their native tongue. “We have no desire to be caught here when the white man drinks his firewater and looks for an outlet for his anger.”

“Go ahead,” Koko agreed. “We will return sometime tomorrow. It will take us a few days to pack up our belongings, so if you wish to return to the People, go ahead and do so. Donoma and I will not be far behind you.”

“We will wait and escort you. Neho’e would expect it and the warriors will accept nothing less.” She nodded and turned away, only to be stopped by his hand on her arm. “What happens to Hassun, Koko Kanti?”

“That is his choice, Honaw. He did nothing wrong, so he will be able to return to the Army as a scout if he wishes. Otherwise, he is welcome to return to the People with us.”

“He wants to stay with the Army. I just wanted to be certain he would not suffer for his actions in helping us find you. He is a good friend.”

“I have found him to be such as well. He will be fine, Honaw.”

“Good,” Honaw replied, reassured. He turned and with a nod of his head collected Keezheekoni. Then the two of them made their way silently out of the saloon and towards the barn where the remainder of the warriors waited. They were ready to be out of the white man’s town and back onto the open prairie.

“Are you all right, Kit?” Daniel asked solicitously before he walked out the door. Despite everything, he’d never been able to maintain his anger at her for very long. She sighed and wrapped her arms around herself.

“I’m fine Daniel. I didn’t mean to reveal everything like that.” Daniel snorted.

“You didn’t reveal everything, and I’m not ashamed of the fact that you’re my sister. The rest…?” He shrugged his shoulders. “We’ll worry about it as things come up.” He pushed open the door and turned to her. “If you plan on this party being a blowout, you should probably get busy. It’ll be nightfall before you know it. Don’t worry,” he added. “The womenfolk’ll be here with their company manners on.” Then he turned and left.

Kitty motioned to her girls. Daniel was right about one thing – there was a lot of work to be done if they were going to do this party up right. A few words, and they set to work, determined to make the night memorable.
Chapter XLIX
“Do you think the soldiers will be all right… the ones that were part of Washburn’s horse outfit, I mean?” Donoma asked as they made their way from the cabin in the early morning light. “I did not see any of the Army at the town gathering. Do the Army and the townspeople not celebrate together? Surely they all owed you a debt of gratitude for what you have done for them,” Donoma stated with a bit of irritation in her voice. Not that she was enamored of the Blue Coats, especially after what they had all just been through because of one Blue Coat in particular; it was simply the principle of the thing.

“I think the Army is still busy trying to straighten out the mess Spencer left. Stephen said the Army would not be pressing formal charges against them, but he expected the major to institute some form of punishment upon those involved. What they did was wrong, so there needs to be some action taken, but since they were all following Spencer’s orders, they do not want to ruin their careers as soldiers.”

“Hassun believes they will be shoveling horse droppings for some time to come,” Honaw informed them. “I spoke with him while you were in town. He told me he hopes to visit the People more often. He felt welcome among us and I believe that is something he has missed.”

“That would be a fitting punishment for those soldiers who were involved with Washburn,” Koko agreed. “And Hassun would be welcome among the People.”

“That is what I told him,” Honaw assured them before moving off to join the warriors in a sweep of the area in an effort to give Donoma and Koko a measure of privacy. Traveling with them as a joined couple was very different from traveling with a sister, a seer or a brother warrior.

“That was an interesting party,” Donoma commented when they were alone again. “So much like our celebrations and yet so different as well. What was the instrument Stephen made music with?”

“A fiddle.”

“I liked it. It had a nice sound. And he had a good singing voice, though not nearly as nice as yours. Why did you not sing last night, Koko Kanti? I have missed hearing you sing.”

“That is not something I am comfortable sharing with the world, Donoma… especially the white man’s world. There is too much expectation there.” At Donoma’s confused look, Koko sighed and continued. “When I sang with the People, it was because I felt like it. I had something to express – happiness, sadness, loneliness, regret. Always there was a reason for my singing, and it was always my reason… not because anyone else in the world expected me to.”

“You sang for me,” Donoma objected.

“I sang for you because it made you happy – and that made me happy. Even when you asked it of me, you never expected me to say yes; you were just glad when I did so.”

“I always thought your singing made the stars twinkle a little brighter, like the Great Spirit was smiling down upon us,” smiling when she saw the light blush trail up dark skin. “I was glad to see Daniel’s wife came,” Donoma said, changing the subject.
“I think it made Kitty happy.”

“I believe so as well. Maybe it will be a new start for them as a family.”

“Do you think Kitty will give up the saloon and move into the cabin? I think short of marrying, that might be the only way Mary would accept her.”

Koko shrugged. “I do not know, ka’eskone. She should not have to. That has been her life for a very long time, and is very much a part of who she is; but at least she has a choice now. Perhaps if she and Stephen decide to settle down….” letting her thoughts trail off and Donoma remained quiet. Finally Koko shook her head. “I do not know,” she repeated. “I think it depends on what Kitty wants to do with her life now. Those girls are her family too. I am not certain she will just give it up, even with the opportunity to do so. It is all she has known for the better part of her life.”

Silence fell between them then, though it was not at all uncomfortable. Their thoughts were mostly centered on the fun they’d had with the townspeople at Kitty’s going away party and the celebration they would soon share with the People in honor of their marriage.

“I hope Nahko’e does not overdo,” Donoma announced suddenly into the quiet. The warriors who had moved closer once the conversation earlier had ceased, had snickered. Koko glared at them and the sound stopped immediately, causing Donoma to smile in Koko’s direction. Koko rolled expressive blue eyes.

“Ka’eskone,” she said with patient amusement. “She is your Nahko’e and you have lived with her for how many cycles? You know very well she is going to overdo. This party is to celebrate the joining of her only nahtona to the one who has loved her since time itself began. It could go on for days.”

Koko’s words made Donoma’s breath catch in her chest and she simply stared at Koko for a long moment.

“Donoma?” Koko called softly. “Ka’eskone, are you all right?”

“That was beautiful, Nutta,” Donoma replied in an equally quiet tone. Koko blinked before realizing exactly what Donoma was referring to.

“And it is the truth, beloved. Do not ever think any differently.”

“I am simply unused to you stating it so plainly, warrior.”

“I will endeavor to correct that oversight in the future, ka’eskone.”

Donoma smiled and blushed. “I will do the same, Koko Kanti. You should always know how I feel.”

Koko smiled. “Oh I do, Donoma. You show me in every look… every word… every touch… even when you were still furious with me, I could feel it.” Donoma’s blush was so fierce, Koko was afraid the blood might actually burst from her skin and she found the reaction endearing. She grinned at Donoma rakishly and waggled her eyebrows.

“Do not tease me warrior – I have many ways of making you pay.” Koko cocked a brow in mute question. “For one thing, you can sleep under the stars with the warriors instead of sharing the dwelling with me,” indicating the single tepee they’d decided to bring along. Koko’s eyes grew comically wide and her lower lip started to tremble just the slightest bit.

“You would not be so cruel.”

“Are you certain?”

Koko held her gaze a long moment. “Yes,” she finally replied. “You would be no happier with that arrangement than I would.”

“Perhaps.” Her eyes were steady but Koko heard the smile in her voice and slumped in reaction. “So,” Donoma added with an outward smile, clearing her throat. “Several days, hmm?”

“I think so,” Koko answered, picking up the thread of conversation left nearly forgotten in the ensuing teasing. “If we are lucky, Litonya will allow only a short celebration with the People so we can make it to the summer camp to have a much longer party with the rest of the tribes.”

“How would that make us lucky, Koko? That just means twice the opportunities for jokes and tricks to be played on us and challenges to be issued to you.”

“Maybe, but we can sneak away from summer camp much easier than we can the People’s encampment. There are many more bodies and joinings at summer camp. There we are one among many instead of one among a few. Besides… who will challenge me? We are already wed to one another – there were witnesses and everything.”

Donoma smiled. “Yes, there were. But I look forward to seeing you wear your buckskins again.”

“I look forward to wearing them. They are a testament of the love we shared even before we confessed it.”

“Yes,” Donoma agreed fervently. “They certainly are.”

They fell silent for a bit after that, their need for conversation diminished in one another’s presence. So they continued their trek west, guarded by the warriors who traveled with them yet remained separate, allowing them whatever modicum of privacy they could provide.

************

“We should prepare ourselves,” Takoda mentioned to Odahingum one evening as they sat around the campfire together. “The warriors will be rejoining us soon.”

“Are Koko and Donoma with them?”

“I have not seen, but I do not believe the warriors would return without them if they were successful in their mission. However,
I have not seen that either. All I am certain of is that the warriors will soon return to us. It is my hope that they were successful;
I do not believe Donoma Chepi or Koko Kanti would survive another separation. And it would break Litonya’s heart.”

“I believe you are correct, my friend. Can you see how far from us the warriors are?”

“Not accurately, though I do am convinced they will reach us before we reach summer camp.”

“Soon then.”

“Very soon.”

************

“Koko Kanti?” Koko looked up from her place in front of the dwelling she and Donoma shared, meeting Honaw’s eyes over the small fire that separated them. She tilted her head and cocked and eyebrow, waiting for him to speak. He looked at Donoma and then back at Koko.

“No secrets, Honaw,” Koko assured him. “She will know whether you tell her now or I do later. You should know this. Now speak your mind.”

Honaw cleared his throat. “I am sorry, Donoma. I was speaking to Koko as one warrior to another; I did not mean to imply that Koko should keep secrets from you. I forgot that your relationship as Koko Kanti’s warrior advisor puts you in a different position than simply being her spouse does.”

“I forgive you, Hestatanemo. You have always had a tendency to try to protect me when you thought you could get away with it,” Donoma smirked. “Not that I always let you.”

Honaw sighed dramatically. “That is the truth.” He glanced at Koko who was openly smirking at him. “Not one word, Koko Kanti.” He grinned. “Now she is your responsibility.”

“At least I can keep up,” chuckling when the smile fell from his face.

“I hate you,” he grumbled, but the twinkling in his eyes belied his words. “Listen, I wanted to let you know that the warriors and I have decided to ride on ahead tomorrow. I believe we are less than two days from where we should find the People and we would like to give them a bit of time to prepare for your arrival.” He sighed. “Nahko’e will never forgive me if I do not give her at least a little warning so that she can be ready.”

Donoma chuckled. “That is probably the truth. Go ahead, Honaw. We will be fine alone.”

“Donoma speaks the truth, my friend. We will be fine. We are far enough from the white man’s world that they should pose no threat and all the People should be headed away from us. Besides, when we leave the People, we will not have the warriors to look out for us. That is something the People need to accept – it is best that they do so at the beginning of our journey together.”

Honaw nodded. “Very well. We will leave at daylight in the morning. If you remain here for an extra day, that should give us time to reach them ahead of you.”

“We will follow behind you, Honaw… two or three days. Just make sure the People keep moving towards the summer encampment. We do not want to be late arriving there. But we will make it to the clan before the tribe gets to the encampment,” Koko assured him. “I told you we would not deny Litonya the opportunity to host the celebration of our joining.”

Honaw nodded. “We will leave in the morning then.” He moved away from the fire and back to the small area the warriors had staked out for themselves. Donoma and Koko exchanged glances, then Donoma leaned her body into Koko’s, gratified to feel the strong arm wrap around her waist and pull her closer.

“I have a confession,” Donoma said so softly, Koko almost missed the words. She tilted her ear in the direction of Donoma’s lips. “I am glad they are going ahead; I would like a little time alone with you to prepare for the melee that is soon to come.”

“Me too,” Koko admitted. “Come,” she said, standing and tugging Donoma up beside her. “Let us rest tonight so we can send the warriors off tomorrow. Then we will see if we can find something to occupy us until we are ready to leave.”

Donoma didn’t speak – she had no need to. The expression on her face was statement enough.

************

Litonya went out to meet the warriors as soon as the word went up from the lookouts that they were approaching. She looked directly at Honaw as he rode forward and climbed down from his horse to meet her. The rest waited a few paces back.

“Well?” looking around for Koko and Donoma.

“They are behind us – two or three days. We wanted to give the People a chance to prepare for their return.”

“Things worked out well, then?”

“Things worked out well. But they will tell you the story when they arrive – it is their story to tell.”

“Fair enough. In the meantime, we have many preparations to make. We will wait here….”

“No. Koko insisted we continue to move towards the summer encampment. They will catch us, Nahko’e. Koko promised, as did Donoma. They have no desire to thwart your celebration. And since there are only two of them instead of an entire clan, it will make little difference in the distance they need to make up to reach us.”

“All right,” Litonya agreed. “Let us go talk to your Neho’e and Odahingum. We have a lot of work to do.”

************

“Are you ready, ka’eskone?” Koko asked as they approached the People’s encampment. Donoma blew out a breath and met Koko’s blue eyes. They’d had three wonderful days of just them and were just arriving at the tribe as the sun reached its zenith. The call from the scouts had already gone up and they could both see the entire clan gathering to welcome them home.

“They are our friends and family, Koko. I do not think we can ever be ready for that,” Donoma replied wryly.

Koko laughed, only her eyes betraying her nervousness. “I tend to agree with you, Donoma. Come, the sooner we get the greetings out of the way, the sooner we can get started celebrating.” Then they were arriving in the midst of the People.

Koko slid from the back of the big black, holding his reins and grasping Dapples’ in the same hand before extending her arms to Donoma. Donoma slipped from Dapples’ back and into Koko’s arms and together they turned to face the People who were waiting to greet them.

Litonya was the first and she took them both in her arms, murmuring words of welcome and congratulation. Litonya stepped back only to find herself lifted off the ground and into Koko’s arms. “Koko Kanti!” she squealed. “Koko Kanti… put me down this instant!” Koko obeyed with a chuckle, laughing even harder when Litonya backhanded her in the belly. She looked at her daughter. “You have your hands full with this one, Donoma Chepi.”

“Yes, Nahko’e,” Donoma agreed, wrapping her arms around Koko’s waist and feeling Koko’s arm come around her shoulders, completing their embrace. “And I would not have it any other way. She completes me.”

“You are happy, my nahtona?”

“So much, Nahko’e.” She looked at Koko and time stood still for the long moment they held each other’s eyes. The entire tribe watched in fascination – the public acknowledgment of a bond they had shared since they were children. “We both are,” Donoma assured Litonya without ever allowing her eyes to stray from Koko’s.

“Have you exchanged promises with one another in accordance with our traditions?” Odahingum asked formally as he came forward, knowing the answer but needing for them to acknowledge it publicly before the People.

“We have, Chief Odahingum.”

“And were there witnesses to this joining?”

“There were,” Koko replied. “Honaw and Keezheekoni bore witness of our exchange.” The two men in question stepped forward and nodded their assent of her words. Odahingum bowed slightly in acceptance of their agreement and turned back to face Koko and Donoma. He smiled and found the expression reflected back to him two-fold. “Then the People extend a welcome to the new family of Donoma Chepi and Koko Kanti. It is wonderful to have you home again!”

A cheer went up from the entire tribe and then they were being escorted into the village area.

************

The celebration had been going on for some time and the sun was just setting when Koko and Donoma were finally able to sit down with Litonya, Takoda and Odahingum. The People settled round them, waiting to hear the tale of what had happened since Donoma and Koko had left them months before.

Slowly Donoma told their story, drawing gasps and groans as she went through the adventures they had shared during their time away. When she reached the showdown with Washburn, Koko held her tighter and absolute silence fell over the entire encampment. Finally….

“So the threat to you has been eliminated, Koko Kanti?” Takoda asked, breaking the silence.

“The most obvious one, yes. There could be others, but Washburn was the worst. The rest we will deal with if and when they arise.”

“Are you certain about going off alone?” Odahingum asked. “The People’s warriors would be glad to stand with you if….”

“No, Chief. We need some time for us. There is so much we need to relearn about each other, discoveries we have missed by being apart from one another for so long. We are not saying we will never return to live among the People, only that we are not staying right now.”

“Let them be, Odahingum,” Litonya spoke up, surprising them all. “They are entitled to a bit of time alone considering what they have been through to be together again.” She turned to the two still clasping one another in a singular embrace. “You will come with us to the summer camp and make an effort to meet up with us there every year until you return to settle with the People?”

“Yes, Nahko’e,” Koko and Donoma said together.

“Good, then let us celebrate – this is a party!” With a whoop and a cry from the warriors, the party resumed, going on well into the night.
Chapter L
The trip across the prairie was slow and steady as the People made their way towards summer camp. Koko resumed her classes with the warriors at their request, spending her mornings sharpening skills that had been left to fallow when she lived among the white man. Donoma’s mornings were used to prepare the things they would need for their journey alone as well as contributing to the daily welfare of the tribe. Many of the women she shared chores with were intrigued to hear about her experiences in the white man’s world and she was glad to share her stories with them.

Afternoons they spent alone together, much as they had during their growing up years. After a few days of this, Litonya turned to Takoda as Koko and Donoma walked out of the encampment. “It is good to have them here again… even if it is only for a little while. They bring balance with them.”

“Are you certain it is wise to allow them to leave us again, Litonya? Surely you have seen the difference having them here makes for the clan.”

Litonya gazed at Takoda with a hint of loving exasperation in her look. “Takoda, you have been a shaman for the People since before your Neho’e passed on to the land of the Great Spirit. I know the well-being of the clan is your first priority, but you need to stop being the tribe’s seer and be Donoma’s Neho’e instead. Look at this from Donoma’s point of view. Her joining with Koko is nothing like anything the People have seen. They have been a couple for their lifetimes and yet they are just discovering the bond they share. You cannot blame them for wanting some peace to make that discovery.”

“None of the rest of us had that luxury, Litonya.”

“None of the rest of us have their history nor have we known separation like they have, Takoda.”

“You are not going to give this up, are you?”

“No. They deserve this together. They will return… one day.”

Takoda smiled. “Are you a seer now?”

“Better… I am a Nahko’e.”

“I surrender, Litonya.”

“I knew I had joined with a smart man,” Litonya said with a giggle. Takoda just laughed and wrapped an arm around her shoulders and together they watched the sun set. It was how Koko and Donoma found them a short time later.

Evenings were spent in conversation and games. There were a few challenges, but more because the warriors felt Koko and Donoma deserved the courtesy than because they wanted to break up their coupling. Not that there was any danger of that – Koko was able to take on all comers… and did so on a regular basis, much to the entertainment of the rest of the tribe.

Nights were about the two of them – Donoma tended to the minor cuts and bruises Koko had accumulated during her day while they shared experiences of their time spent apart. Some nights they spent making love and others they merely curled around one another in sleep.

So they slowly made their way across the prairie towards the summer encampment.

************

Their arrival in the summer camp was a heralded event and a feeling of excitement pervaded the People. Word had spread of Koko’s return to her clan and her joining to Donoma. So everyone was out to greet them when they finally reached the summer encampment.

It was odd – hundreds of People observing as they entered the outskirts of the village, but not a sound could be heard beyond the whisper the horses made. The scouts keeping watch had alerted the camp of their approach, and the People gathered together to welcome them.

Odahingum came first, followed by Takoda. Then came Donoma and Koko riding side by side in their joining attire. The respected elders followed behind them; the warriors were next, riding in pairs or threesomes and looking around carefully at the assembly. Bringing up the rear were the women and children.

When the clan reached the main village of the summer encampment, the ranks of the rest of the People closed around them from behind. The elders moved to take their places with the others and the People spread out respectfully to watch the greeting between Odahingum and the rest of the chieftains.

“Greetings, my friends.”

“Welcome, Chief Odahingum and the People of his clan. We understand you come bearing great news.”

“I do indeed. Koko Kanti has returned to us, and she and Donoma Chepi have joined their lives and formed a new family.”

“Were there witnesses to this joining?” Honaw and Keez stepped forward and awaited the chieftains’ acknowledgment before moving back to their places with the warriors. “Then we welcome the new family of Koko Kanti and Donoma Chepi to the People and look forward to blessing them on the day of the long sun.”

With that pronouncement, a cheer went up from the congregation and the tribe moved to set up their dwellings before mingling with the friends they saw for only a short time once a year.

************

Koko deliberately chose a quiet spot a little separated from the rest for erecting their temporary home. With Donoma’s help, it was up quickly and Koko led Donoma inside. Once they were alone, Donoma leaned her head against Koko’s chest; Koko wrapped her arms around Donoma and kissed the top of her head.

“Ka’eskone?”

“I do not like being the center of attention, Koko Kanti. It is very unnerving.”

Koko chuckled soundlessly. “You should be used to it, Donoma. You have always drawn attention to yourself, simply by being who you are.”

“Not like this, Koko Kanti. Before I was looked to for my gift as a seer and when that was not needed, I could become part of the whole… unnoticed by the rest.”

“None here tried to capture your attention, ka’eskone?”

“Only once….” Koko raised her eyebrows in question. “Warriors do not handle public humiliation well.” Koko didn’t need to speak – Donoma could see the thoughts running through her blue eyes. “It was the first year we came to summer camp after you left. Innan thought it was an open invitation. He did not know that you had taught me to defend myself. When I refused his attention, he went to Neho’e to force the issue.”

“What happened?” Koko asked, unable to resist the twinkle sparkling out of the green eyes.

“He challenged – I answered. I did not defeat him, but he did not defeat me either. I was left alone after that.”

“I am sorry, Donoma,” after a moment’s silence. “I should have been here.”

“We cannot change what happened, Koko Kanti. At least I was able to hold my own, thanks to you.”

“I wish I could have seen that,” Koko said wistfully.

Donoma chuckled. “I do not think Innan would be willing to give another demonstration. The warriors no longer tease him, but it took a very long time for him to live down.”

“I’ll bet,” Koko murmured. “Come, let us change from our wedding attire into more comfortable clothing. Then we can go out and mix and mingle with the rest of the People. Maybe we will run into Innan,” Koko added waggling her eyebrows.

Donoma laughed. “I do not think he would allow himself to be caught like that, warrior. Besides, he has his hands full with the wives and children he has now.”

“Take all my fun,” Koko grumbled, loosening the ties to remove her shirt. Then she caught her breath when Donoma’s hand started to wander across the warm skin of her back, gently raising the shirt with each passing touch.

“All your fun, warrior?” bringing her lips into play as she exposed more skin.

It was a while before they made it out among the People again.

************

The next few days were spent renewing old friendships and making new ones. Innan did manage to avoid them, much to Koko’s amusement. But it was nice to reacquaint themselves with those that had always counted them as friends. Finally, however, all the tribes of the People were gathered and as summer solstice dawned, they prepared to celebrate the births and marriages of the previous cycle. The elders blessed the babies first, then it came time for those who had been joined.

The eldest elder stood – a man whose cycles numbered beyond counting – and beckoned Koko and Donoma forward first. “The rest have requested that you be blessed first and separately. I believe you make them nervous.”

The assembly tittered and Koko and Donoma stepped forward and took their place in front of the elders.

“For a very long time, we have watched the bond you share grow and develop into something beyond what most witness and even fewer share. There were many among us that had given up seeing a successful resolution between you – I cannot tell you how it gladdens all of us to be proven wrong about it.”

“Me too,” Koko muttered, drawing grins from every elder within hearing.

“I will keep this brief,” the elder promised. “The sooner we finish the blessings, the sooner we start the celebration,” drawing cheers and whistles from everyone. “So….” he started, clearing his throat before he continued. “The strength of your mothers, the wisdom of your fathers, the warmth of your clan to surround and comfort you. Find your hearts in one another – keep them safe and love one another well until you make your way into the arms of the Great Spirit.”

The remainder of the elders echoed his sentiments and Koko and Donoma accepted the cheers and congratulations of the tribe with a blush before they were allowed to move on while the rest moved forward to be blessed. Then the celebration began.

************

“How do you feel, nahtona?” Takoda asked, sitting down beside Donoma much later that evening. Koko had been called away to congratulate those that had been initiated into the ranks of the Peoples’ warriors at sundown though their eyes never left one another despite the current physical distance between them. “Now that your joining to Koko Kanti has been recognized and blessed by the elders of the People.”

“It does not change how I feel, Neho’e. Why would it?”

Takoda blinked in surprise. “You do not feel differently now that you have been blessed… like your marriage to Koko has merit or validation now?”

Donoma turned to Takoda then, outrage flowing from her very green eyes. “My mating with Koko Kanti needs no merit or validation from anyone. What we share is between us and us alone. We allowed the elders to bless us because it is the way of our People and we respect that. They would have been disappointed had we not asked for their blessing. But it does not change the way we feel.”

“Problem, ka’eskone?” Koko purred as she wrapped Donoma in her arms from behind.

“No, Nutta. Simply a misunderstanding,” holding Takoda’s eyes. Unexpectedly, he smiled at them and took them into his arms briefly before releasing them.

“No misunderstanding, Donoma Chepi. You responded exactly as I hoped you would – you both did. Thank you for proving me right,” he said again. Then he brushed a hand over each woman’s cheek and returned to his place around the fire with the other shamen. Koko and Donoma watched wordlessly as he spoke, seeing the vehemence in his gestures and watching all eyes turn to them for a moment before the rest grumblingly relinquished some sort of payment to him.

Without a word they exchanged gazes, glancing at the shamen once more before Koko released Donoma from her embrace and extended a hand. Donoma accepted the invitation and together they walked away from the celebration and into the quiet peace of the prairie summer night.

“Do I even want to know?”

“Probably not. I know I do not.”

They walked further out into the prairie, until the camp was nothing more than a speck of light behind them and the only sounds they heard were those of the crickets, the herds and the grasses blowing in the breeze. Finally Koko pulled them to a stop and wrapped Donoma in her embrace, gratified when Donoma immediately turned in her arms to face her.

“Do you suppose my Neho’e and Nahko’e are watching? Do you think they know how happy I am?”

“I think they do, Nutta,” Donoma replied confidently. “I believe the Great Spirit shares our joy with them.”

“I wonder if we will ever see them again… in this world, I mean.”

“Perhaps one day… if we are in need of their help or guidance like we were before. In the meantime, I like to think they know we are finally happy together and that they are happy for us.” They both looked up at the two stars that represented Honiahaka and Rae’l to them for a few minutes. Then Koko cleared her throat before speaking softly to keep from disturbing the peace around them.

“Well, Mrs. Donoma Chepi Reb Stone,” seeing the arched eyebrow and chuckling in response to the address. “We have been lost to and found each other again; have been joined to one another; have made friends in the white man’s world; have defeated the enemy that would have seen us destroyed; have returned to the bosom of our People; and have received the blessing of both chieftain and elders. What do you want to do now?”

“Tonight, I want to return to our dwelling and show you just how much I love you. Is that not part of our responsibility as a newly blessed couple?” she added with wicked grin, allowing the merriment to peek out of her eyes.

Koko’s grin matched her own and her eyes danced with happiness. “I believe it is, ka’eskone. We cannot ignore this tradition. It could bring us bad luck and we would not want to start out our blessed lives inviting bad luck upon us in such a manner.” She ducked her head and kissed Donoma with passionate intent. “And after that – when we are certain we have fulfilled our obligations?” she asked breathlessly when they separated.

“After that, when we are completely sated by one another, I want to curl up in your arms and sleep peacefully until the sun comes up. And once daylight has returned to the land, I would like to take our leave of the People and go make our own way… wherever we feel led to go.”

“You sound like a woman with a plan, ka’eskone.”

“I am a woman with a life to lead, and I cannot wait to lead it with you, warrior mine.”

“Come then. Let us return to the camp so we may begin the ritual honoring the tradition of celebrating becoming a blessed couple. Then tomorrow we will see what lies over the next hill… and the next… until we decide differently.”

“I love you Koko Kanti… so much.”

“You are my world, Donoma Chepi. I love you too.”

************

Their leave taking the following morning was a boisterous affair as every member of every clan seemed to desire to offer well-wishes and farewells. Finally though, everyone was done except for their closest family. Odahingum was the first of the last to speak to them.

“Be well,” he offered. “And come home safely.”

Honaw stepped forward next. “Thank you for allowing me to be part of your journey thus far. It was a privilege to have been witness to so much. Now do not go off and forget about the family here that loves and cares for you. I will be waiting for your return – I want to hear the stories of the sights you find and the places you go and the things you do.”

Donoma returned the hug he gave her fiercely. “I will write it all down for you, Hestatanemo, so I will not forget anything in the telling. Watch out for yourself and for our Neho’e and Nahkon’e.”

“I will and you and Koko Kanti look out for each other.”

Takoda walked to them next, taking them both in his arms and murmuring a low prayer for them. Then he kissed each of them and stepped back to allow Litonya to have the final good bye.

“We will miss you while you are gone from us, but I understand the necessity of doing so. I hope you find what you are searching for soon that you may return to us all the sooner. But if you do not, know that we will not forget and there will always be a place for you both at our fire.”

“Thank you, Nahkon’e,” Donoma said, hugging her mother tightly, then standing back so Koko could do the same.

“I will protect her, Litonya. And I will bring her home to stay when we are ready to settle with the People.”

“And you will return here to summer camp every year until you do?”

“We will make every effort, Litonya. I promise you.” Litonya held Koko’s serious blue eyes for a long moment, then nodded.

“Very well. Go with my blessing.”

The two mounted their horses and looked around at the expectant crowd. Then without a word, they reached out their hands and linked them, turning their horses west and setting off without a backwards glance.

Litonya chanced a look at Takoda and noted the mysterious hint of a smile on his face. She tilted her head in curiosity. “You know something,” she said flatly.

“I know that they have each other. That will make the rest all right.” They watched until Koko and Donoma were mere specks in the distance before they returned to the encampment, ready to pack up their own things and prepare for the trip across the Plains – back towards their winter home.
Epilogue
There was something to be said for solitude on the vast prairie and the peace they found together there was something Donoma and Koko appreciated on a number of levels. At the moment, they were appreciating the fact in the most intimate of ways.

Honiahaka and Rae’l had turned away at the first sign of lovemaking between their daughters – not to preserve their modesty as much as to give Koko and Donoma the privacy and respect they deserved.

“It is good to see them happy together, is it not?” Honiahaka asked his wife with a smile.

“It is indeed,” Rae’l agreed. “It was quite the road to get here though.”

“Yes, but it is not the destination that counts, but the journey we take to reach it. Koko and Donoma have made a wonderful start to a memorable journey.”

“I hope it is long and filled with happiness.”

“I think it will be,” Honiahaka said. The pair smiled down upon their children as Koko’s and Donoma’s mingled laughter rang out across the prairie. He and Rae’l moved further away, knowing for right now, everything was right in their world.

The Drifter had come home and found her place at last.

THE END

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