Rain Shadow

By: Cheryl St.John

Prologue



Nebraska, 1875

An unfriendly wind carried the pervading stench of scorched wood and canvas. Two Feathers, crouched in an outcropping of boulders, ignored the odor as well as the rocks biting through his moccasins, his attention focused on the ruinous scene below him.

The charred skeletons of two dozen covered wagons lay on their sides like so many smoldering carcasses on the Nebraska prairie. Thin gray trails of acrid smoke curled into the darkening sky. Growing bolder as night drew near, black scavengers circled overhead, occasionally swooping toward the scattered bodies of the slain whites.

He examined a few overturned rocks. A small war party had lain in wait earlier. The arrows in the bodies were Crow. Two Feathers wasn’t worried that the band would return. They had scalped and looted and were long gone.

Ominous thunderclouds had obliterated the setting sun the better part of an hour ago, and the purple sky boasted the unmistakable aura of rain.

Through the stillness a pitiful wail carried, wafting with the dry, acrid stench of gunpowder. The sound had grown weak—at times almost a mewling—but its effect was no less profound than the first time Two Feathers had heard it.

Several yards from the violent scene, Two Feathers saw a small figure take a few reeling steps and crumple on the short-cropped buffalo grass. It was a girl child, tiny and dark-haired. The sun, her foremost enemy earlier, had disappeared, and now her true peril began.

The Indian gestured to the spotted pony behind him, covered the velvet nose and whispered a command. The animal stood unmoving, its eyes watchful. Two Feathers crept stealthily from his hiding place, silently closing the distance between his horse and the child.

Catching sight of the lithely muscled Indian dressed only in deerskin leggings, a knife at his hip, her dark eyes registered surprise. Her head rolled tiredly, but the soft keening lessened.

She was no more than three or four summers, dressed in the muslin and aproned fashion of the whites. Her exquisite hair, near black and flowing, held bits of dry grass and twigs. A heart-shaped gold locket with a stone Two Feathers didn’t recognize dangled from a chain around her neck. Was the ornament a bauble to pacify her during the day’s journey, or perhaps a mother’s last frantic attempt to leave the child a shred of her identity?

Two Feathers crouched over her.

She stared back fearlessly, her stormy violet eyes taking in his angular features, his beaded headband and the two red feathers dangling over his left ear.

What had she seen here this day? How much had she been spared? Her lack of fear showed a brave and strong spirit. Wandering away from the others as she was, he imagined a parent thrusting her from the wagon when the attack came. He would have done the same. He would have taken any measure to save his own child—had she lived.

“Mama,” the girl child managed in a raw-throated voice, and touched the feathers. Was she asking for a parent or was his long, black hair familiar? She placed a dirty palm on his mahogany cheek, and his warrior’s stoic heart admitted her.

To the west, an enormous dark cloud covered what little remained of the sun, and rumbling thunder shook the ground. He couldn’t leave her to die. Not this child with a strong spirit and will to live. Wakon Tanka had spared her for a reason.

Lightning forked from the dark sky, punctuating Two Feathers’ decision.

There’d been no movement near the scattered wagons since he’d come upon them. If anyone lived through the massacre, he would soon be dead. Once darkness settled on the plain, the night predators would close in. The child would be prey to scavengers and the ominous storm.

He didn’t know which wagon the child belonged to, and if he ventured any nearer, a dying white man might mistake him for one of the Crow attackers and shoot. With deft movements, he plucked her from the ground and ran silently to his waiting pony. She didn’t weigh as much as most game he brought down and gave less resistance.

Astride, the girl in one arm, he kicked the pony with a moccasined heel and skirted the carnage of the wagon train. A jagged streak of lightning pierced the sky, momentarily illuminating his granite-cut features. Before the rain fell, Two Feathers pulled a deerskin from his bundle and covered the sleeping child. His child now.

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