Authors: Joseph Bruchac
t took us an hour of walking to finally leave behind the burned lands. The fire had swept through so fast that it would not take long for the grasses to return. I could see that some of the bushes still had green on their branches, despite the blaze taking all their leaves. A fire can actually help revive the land, cleaning away the dry grass and brush, the ash fertilizing the land as long as rain eventually follows.
As I thought that, it came to me that maybe that was what was happening to our planet. That what the Silver Cloud brought was not an end but a new beginning. It was a strange thing to think, I know, especially as we walked through a landscape devastated by fire toward who knew what dangers still ahead. But my mind was in a strange place, actually feeling happy.
We were alive. We'd survived what had looked like certain death from that fire. We both kept coughing and trying to clear our throats. The water from our canteens wasn't enough to clear it, and we had to conserve it for drinking water. And I itched all over, an itching that got worse as the sun got hotter and I sweated more. But the talk that Phil and I'd just had had changed so much about this journey that I was still smiling as I walked along by his side.
“Man,” Phil said, spitting out a black glob of phlegm and tar, “I can't take this any longer. I would give a thousand credits for a bath.”
I thought about Uncle Lenard's map.
“Box Elder Creek,” I said, looking south. “Maybe there's a pool in it somewhere.”
I waved my hand and whistled. One of the crows that had been circling ahead of us came down and landed on my arm.
“Water,” I said. “Can you find some for us in the creek, a nice deep spot?”
The crow leaped up, flapped its way up into the sky high overhead and then sailed to the southwest until it was out of sight. Before I could count to ten it reappeared and dived down, cawing.
“Thank you,” I said to the crow as it circled.
I heard Phil chuckle behind me. “Rose Eagle,” he said, “you are amazing.”
*Â *Â *
The pool of water, formed by a few boulders lying in a curve of Box Elder Creek, was twenty feet wide, twice as long, and perhaps six feet deep. Its surface was like glass, only broken here and there by the tiny rippling circles where small water striders floated across its surface. We were several miles beyond the fire zone now and there was no longer even a trace of smoke in the air. Alders and willows lined its far bank, and some sort of red flowers were blooming there, vibrant as living flames. It seemed like the loveliest place I'd seen.
I looked over at Phil, who had shrugged off his pack and was looking down the small hill at the pool with a longing that matched mine.
“Go ahead, Rose,” he said. “You first.”
I slipped off my boots. The moss on the bank felt soft, warm, and spongy underfoot. I placed my holstered shotgun and my sheathed knife on top of my packs. I rinsed out my vest, threw it back up onto the bank. Then I couldn't wait any longer. The water felt too good. I didn't even take off my socks. I just splashed in. Gray circles rose around my legs as the ash dissolved from my skin and my tight jeans in the cool water. Then I just sat down, relaxed and fell back, eyes open underwater, feeling the cleansing embrace of the creek for a moment.
But not too long. Only a fool would stay relaxed in this new world. Stay relaxed long enough, and you'd be a dead fool. We still had to reach our next shelter for the night, then make our way the next day those final miles to Bear Butte.
I pushed my way to a shallower part of the pool, my long hair plastered all around my face. I leaned forward, then back, whipping my hair back the way horses used to whip their manes, wrung the water from my thick tresses, and wiped my hands down along my body to wash off the last of the ashes and the smoky scent. And that was it. I was done. My clothes were soaked and clung to every curve of my body, but they would dry soon enough as we walked, cooling me as the moisture evaporated.
Then I waded out of the pool.
“Your turn,” I said to Phil. Then I noticed he was staring at me.
“What?” I asked. “I know. I looked ridiculous. Like a drowned rat, right?”
Phil smiled as he looked away. “No,” he said, turning his back toward me as he took off his own boots. “I wouldn't say that at all.”
Then, without facing me, he took one step down the bank and jumped in.
ur safe place that night was an even smaller storage shed that held drilling equipment. Not the kind that you'd use to drill for water, but for rock. It was near what had been the town of Sturgis, at the foot of a mountain that had once been carved into the shape of a man on horseback.
I'd heard about the place, how the family that had carved that mountain for long decades said they were doing it to honor our Lakota people. The carving was supposed to be Crazy Horse, the warrior and leader of our people who was still remembered by usÂ âÂ even long, long after he was killed by the army. Back in the old days, that family of carvers made a lot of money from tourists who came to look at that mountain.
Aunt Mary said that there were very few Lakotas who cared about that monument. It wasn't just that very little of that money went to us Indians. We all knew that Crazy Horse never allowed anyone to take his picture or even draw him while he was alive. So chopping up a sacred mountain to make an image on horseback pointing his armÂ âÂ which was kind of a rude gestureÂ âÂ seemed a little weird.
The monument didn't last long after it was finished. When our Overlords created the New World Corporation, they decided that such monuments were counterproductive. Pulse cannons had been used to blow up it and others like it, including the one with the faces of men who'd been leaders of the now-defunct United States. The demolition left nothing but rubble and bare slopes. They had also leveled the museum and visitor's center at the foot of the mountain. The only thing left, probably because it was so small that the people manning those lev-mounted pulse cannons didn't notice it, was the shed where we took shelter, which was rather worse for wear after centuries of weather and neglect. There were also a number of trees with dead branches close by, so firewood would be no problem.
It was awkward as we settled in that evening. For some reason, Phil had avoided looking at me the rest of that day as we walked. He even tried to stay ahead of me so that I was looking at his broad, muscular back most of the time. Not a bad view, but it troubled me the way he was acting. Had I upset him somehow? I thought things had changed between us for the better, but now I wasn't so sure.
When we reached the base of the mountainÂ âÂ which my black-feathered scouts had assured me was free from dangerÂ âÂ he did speak.
“Looks clear,” he said about the shed. Then he busied himself gathering firewood.
There were no cots inside. We'd be sleeping on the dirt floor. The only contents was a tangle of tools tossed in the far cornerÂ âÂ jackhammers, rusty drill bits, long coils of wire or hoses or whatever wrapped in bundles. But there was space in the center for a fire and light coming in through the thin spaces in the walls where the metal siding didn't meet. It was a sturdy building, and since the door opened inward, we could wedge it shut from within. Safe, but it had been built just to secure its contents, not to make it homey or airtight. Wind would come in through those finger-wide gaps, and the way the air felt and the way the clouds were moving overhead made me believe we would really need our fire that night. Though it had been hot during the day, it was already getting cooler. I knew that in late summer it could drop from boiling hot down to almost freezing in a few hours. Maybe as cold as Phil had been acting toward me since our dip in the creek.
What had I done to make him act that way?
When Phil came back with a third armload of wood, though, that sunny smile was back on his face.
“Guess what?” he said, dropping the sticks on top of the sizable pile he'd made. “I found something real interesting.”
I followed him around the side of the hill, skirting the giant piles of rubble, including one immense boulder that you could see had once been the head of a horse.
“I'll bet they didn't know this was still here,” Phil said, pointing his chin at a low structure slightly smaller than our shed. Tucked away under a shelving ledge that would have made it hard to see from a lev-platform, it was a thick-walled sort of blockhouse. The metal door had been fastened by a latch, but that latch had not been secured with a lock. So it had not been hard for Phil to open it.
I read the warning written on the door in faded red letters.
“Yup,” Phil said. “Older stuff, but some is the same as we had in the Deeps. I was on a charge crew when I worked there. So I know how to use it.”
A little ripple of fear went down my spine. It was a premature explosion of a charge that had taken my father's life. I took a step backward.
“Is it dangerous?”
Phil grinned. “Not to us,” he said.
Phil then launched into a long and far too technical explanation of just what was in that storage shed.
“There's no dynamite,” he said. “Which is TNT, invented way back in the nineteenth century by a man named Alfred Nobel. But seeing as how when it ages, it starts to sweat nitroglycerin and can just blow you up when you drop it, that's good. The C-4 in there isn't much good because you need an electric charge to set it off. But what is really nice are the slap charges, not all that new, earlier twenty-first century stuff, invented whenÂ .Â .Â .”
And so on. My eyes were glazing over by the time Phil paused for breath and he noticed the look on my face.
Phil grinned. “Sorry,” he said. “Guess it's just that I really liked blowing things up. That was the only good part about working the Deeps. I was on your father's crew andÂ â”
“Oh man, I am such an idiot. I forgot that, I mean IÂ .Â .Â .Â .”
I couldn't help it. What he'd said had brought it all back to me. That day of the explosion and the shaft collapse. The day when I lost my dad, and my mom lost her reason to live. The tears were filling my eyes, and I was finding it hard to breathe.
Phil opened his arms and wrapped them around me. He squeezed me so tight I could hardly breathe. His smooth brown cheek was against mine.
“Rose Eagle, Rose, I am so sorry. Forgive me,” he whispered, his breath warm in my ear.
And now I was having another reason to find it hard to breathe. And I didn't want him to let go. Ever.
But it was not his sympathy that my heart wanted. I put my right hand against his chest and pushed him away, maybe a little too roughly, wiping my face with the back of my other hand.
“I'm okay,” I said. “Really.”
I picked up one of the innocent-looking objects he'd described as a slap charge.
“So how does this work?” I said.
Phil took it from my hand. “Sort of like a grenade.” He turned it over. “Pull this off, and there's a sticky surface under it that'll hold on to almost anything. Slap it down. Activate by pulling off this safety strip and then the red string under it. That starts a chemical reaction. See this â10' on it? That means ten seconds. There are twenties, thirties, even one hundreds. And these letters, âSC,' mean it's a small charge. Want to see how it works?”
Phil's voice was so eager that I had to agree. I also didn't want him to think I was a total wimp after the way I'd acted. Plus it would take my mind off how good it had felt when he embraced meÂ âÂ like a parent soothing a hysterical child, but still tight against his chest, his arms around me, his breath in myÂ âÂ enough!
“Okay,” I said.
“Okay!” he replied. “Just stay back here. This is just a little one, but cover your ears.”
Phil walked confidently to a flat expanse of rock ledge fifty yards away. He peeled the back strip, which fluttered from his hand like a shiny willow leaf. He slapped the charge down on the ledge, pulled the string, and sprinted back to me, counting backward as he came.
“.Â .Â .Â threeÂ .Â .Â .Â twoÂ .Â .Â .Â one!”
The sound of the blast echoed off the cliffs around us. I dropped my hands from my ears and straightened back up. Phil grabbed my hand. “Come look.”
We walked together to the place on the ledge where the charge had been placed. There was now a two-foot-deep hole in the solid stone.
“Unidirectional,” Phil said. Then he went into the shed with his pack.
“We are for sure taking some of these bad boys with us,” he said, as he carefully placed one slap charge after another of different sizes into his pack. “These days, with all the things out there that see us as a potential meal, you never know when being able to blow something up might save your life.”
hat night we started off sleeping on opposite sides of the fire. However, the way the windÂ âÂ which had picked up after darkÂ âÂ blew in through the cracks in the siding meant that one side of the fire was too smoky to breathe well. The wind was also too cold to have it on your back. The only place that was relatively wind- and smoke-free was on the west side of the fire. That was where I'd placed my blankets to start with, putting my packs between me and the door to make a little windbreak.
After an hour or so of hearing Phil cough and move around trying to get comfortable, I sat up.
“Stop being an idiot. Come on over to this side,” I said. “There's room here.”
There was just room enough for him to settle in behind me, a full arm's length away toward that western wall of the building. I'd tried to get him to take my place near the fire, but he'd insisted on that spot.
And so, aside from my whole body trembling involuntarily every now and then at his close presence, I settled in for the night and fell asleep. For a while.
What woke me was both the cold and the feeling that someone was moving close by. Phil, of course. He was trying to make his way around me to add more wood to the fire, which had burned way down.
I sat up and pulled my legs back.
“I should have built up the fire,” I said. For some reasonÂ âÂ even though there was no one else but us to hearÂ âÂ I was whispering.
“It's okay,” Phil said. “I like being fire keeper.” He began piling sticks, and the fire flared up, lighting the planes of his handsome face. “I think I got enough for the night.”
I wrapped my big arms around myself. “I'm cold,” I said. For some reason my voice soundedÂ âÂ to me at leastÂ âÂ like that of a little girl wanting to be comforted. Jeez!
Phil turned, still on his knees, to look at me. Big awkward me being pathetic.
“Rose,” he whispered, his voice tentative, “Can IÂ .Â .Â . can I tell you something?”
Like he thinks of me as a really good partner, like a buddy or a sister, maybe?
“Okay,” I whispered. “I suppose.”
“Promise you won't take it wrong,” he said. “Promise?” And now he was the one who sounded like a little kid.
He's such a gentleman that he doesn't want to hurt my feelings
. Which made it all the more painful for me to nod.
“Okay, I guess.”
Phil shook his head. “Rose Eagle,” he said. “You are driving me crazy.”
His words cut into my heart like a sharp blade. I wanted to scream or stand up and open the door and run out into the night. But instead I just lowered my head and whispered, “I'm sorry.”
“No,” Phil said, his voice no longer a whisper. “No! I'm the one who should be sorry. I know I'm an idiot for saying this out loud. And I promise I won't ever say it again, and I'll do whatever I can to help you on your quest. But I think you, Rose Eagle, are incredible. It's everything about youÂ âÂ the way you carry yourself, the way you can talk with birds and animals, your courage, and your kindness. Plus,” he paused, “you are the most beautiful and desirable woman I have ever met.”
“What?” I jerked my head up so fast it hurt my neck. My eyes met Phil's, and I could see he was taking a deep breath and swallowing hard.
“Rose Eagle,” he said, “I have the world's biggest crush on you.”
This smile was rising up from somewhere so deep inside me that it seemed as if it was going to make me float up toward the roof. I wasn't cold anymore. Instead my whole body felt as if it was glowing like a wood stove.
“Really?” I asked, reaching out to him.
“Really,” he said. There was a smile of reliefÂ âÂ and of something elseÂ âÂ on his face as he took my hand in his.
“Are you sure?” I said, pulling him closer.
“More than sure,” he said, sliding over so that our shoulders touched and his arms were around me.
“Me too,” I said, our faces so close now that our breath was mingling.
And then we stopped talking.
*Â *Â *
I don't want to disappoint you, but aside from hugging and kissing and sleeping wrapped around each other, it didn't go much farther than that between us that night.
Not that we both didn't want it to go farther. But I was on a quest, as Phil reluctantly reminded me. And unless you were acting like IktomiÂ âÂ the trickster in our oldest storiesÂ âÂ it was not proper to have sex while you were on a spiritual journey. Not to mention that would have been way too fast.
We also had a lot of talking to do. I wanted to be sure that it was all not too good to be true.
“Don't you like those other girls back at the Ridge?” I asked, my index finger tracking down the side of Phil's jaw.
He reached up to grasp my hand and steer it over to his lips.
“Are you kidding? No way I would ever snag one of those girls that kept hanging around me. I was always polite to them, but that was all. I wanted someone I could talk with, someone I could respect, as well as feel physically attracted toÂ .Â .Â .” He squeezed my shoulder and then ran his hand through my hair. “Do you have any idea at all how good-looking you are?”
“No,” I said. “But you can tell me.”
“Today, when you came out of the creek, it was all I could do to keep myself from jumping your bones, Rose Eagle.”
I poked him in the stomach. “If you'd tried, I would have kicked you into the middle of next week!”
Phil laughed. “I can believe that!”
It had to be close to dawn when we stopped talkingÂ .Â .Â . and doing what we were doing when talking was not necessary and got in the way. Then we slept, a little. Amazingly, when we woke up, despite the lack of sleep, I felt more rested than I had in weeks.
I looked at Phil.
“Good morning, cowboy. How do you feel today?”
“Never better, sweetheart of the rodeo,” he said. “Ready to take on an army of gemods.”
“Let's hope not,” I said, my smile as broad as his.