Dillon Black slept with the horses.
Not the best bedfellows he'd ever had, but far from the worst. Most of them were heavy with foal, and there wasn't a nag in the herd. Having slept with his own kind of overdue female, Dillon would know. But some studs just naturally had it made. Others were only human.
South Dakota sod was not the most comfortable bed he'd ever had, either, but the view was incomparable. His blanket was made of stars. From where he lay on the rise above the Grand River, he could see every square foot of ground he truly cared about, even on the darkest night. The prairie was never fully dark or completely quiet. Something was always happening.
Lovemaking, for instance. The flat at the foot of his sleeping hill rolled all the way to the place where Earth spread her grassy hair about her shoulders, made her knees into two hills, opened her legs and let the night sky prevail. She took her voice from the coyote and her breath from the night breeze. She was enjoying herself. Dillon could feel it in her rocky bones, and it was all to the good, as long as the coyotes and the cats kept their distance from his mares. He kept his hunting rifle in plain view, hoping any predators who might be sitting on the fence would take it as reason enough to hang back. That and the fact that Dillon was actually wearing his glasses. He never missed when he remembered to wear his glasses.
And he was about to see a miracle happen not fifty yards away. Closer, if need be. Sugar, the baldface dun he'd been watching over, had already blown her water. She'd been up and down a few times, and she'd extruded two twiggy legs. She was down for the count now. Fifteen minutes, tops. But she was nervous, and it wasn't about the foal. It wasn't about Dillon, who knew better than to crowd a foaling mustang. There was something out there, something that was all teeth and claws. And for the next fifteen minutes there would be nothing the mare could do about it. Every part of her was committed now to giving birth.
Rifle in hand, Dillon eased his way down the slope. The mare had picked herself an open spot where she couldn't easily be trapped. All she needed was a little time, and she would have her baby on its feet and running with the herd, probably by sunup. She lifted her head and eyeballed her guardian, letting him know he was too close. He took her cue, squatted on his heels and laid the rifle on the ground.
From this angle, the mare seemed to float on the moonlit river, adrift in a spillway of stars. It was the perfect vision for a moment like this. Dillon and his partner called their ranch The Wolf Trail, after the Lakota name for the Milky Way. It was a grand gesture on the part of two Indian cowboys who'd hit the ground hard and earned their re-ride.
But what the hell? Wasn't this the Grand River? It flowed from past to present, gathering strength from winter's sleep and power from the spring equinox. The great Sitting Bull had lived and died on its banks only a few miles upstream. And tonight Dillon imagined the old man kicking some of those stars loose and sending them tumbling home to brighten the night for the granddaughter of one of his favorite horses, for such was the heritage of Wolf Trail Mustangs.
Sugar grunted. Scoffing at him, was she? Dillon shook his head. The mare had about as much time for a man as a mite right about now. Female heritage, the instinct to survive and produce another survivor, that was her be-all and end-all at the moment. In the moment, if horses had moments. If horses had wishesif they were wishes
How did that go?
How about, If wishes were horses, Sitting Bull's people would ride? The descendants of Sitting Bull's people would ride the descendants of Sitting Bull's horses if Dillon's horse would get her wish and produce another survivor. That was the way it should go, would go, as long as Dillon kept the teeth and claws at bay.
"Easy, girl. I know there's something out there. It won't get past me, I swear."
Stop trying to get all philosophical and just listen to the night, Black Bear, he told himself. This night. It's all that counts right now.
Black Bear was an ancestral name, or part of one. His great-grandfather was Black Bear Runs Him, but the name had been shortened twicefirst cut in half by some agency record keeper, and then halved again by Dillon's father, who'd lied about his name, age and anything else that might have kept him from enlisting in the army right around 1943. Surnames weren't part of Lakota tradition, but neither was record-keeping. Dillon would take his beloved grandfather's name one day, when he felt he'd earned it. He would make Dillon Black Bear legal. Like blood and the eternal river, it was a name that connected him to the Lakota circle, and he needed all the connections he could get. They kept his feet on the ground.
But tonight the notion of a river flowing out of the past was distracting. Mixing with an imagination like Dillon's, the current stirred up a fiery vision. Flames danced on the water, taunting him with the river's memory of another grand gesture. His damn fire, his dream afire. Whatever he couldn't remember about that night, the river remembered for him in a single reflection, indelibly etched in his brain. It showed him what was left of Dillon Black when he'd pushed himself up from the mud. A crazy drunk flipping God the flaming bird.
Remember when Dillon Black torched his house?
what? Seven years to live it down? He had to be pretty close. Lucky seven. He still got razzed about it once in a whilefirst rule of Indian humor being you were allowed to give only as good as you were willing to takebut he would hate like hell for anybody to mention it in front of Emily.
His daughter was coming home for the summer. His home, his stomping grounds. The place where she was born. She'd lived with her mother for what was undoubtedly the better part of her life, but she was coming home because she believed in the horses and the sacred circle. And, wonder of wonders, she loved her dad. Whenever Monica had told the girl that she was just like her father, it generally meant she'd fucked something up. Some small thing, but the kind that could lead to a big thing unless Monica nipped it in the bud.
No way was Emily just like her father. The part of her life after they'd left him might have beenokay, was better than the first part. But lately Dillon had begun to believe she took after the better part of him. Her horse sense, for one thing. Her interest in her father's people. Little things, maybe, but enough to convince him that he still had a better part, even though he'd split the sheets with his better half.
The mare's big body shuddered with the proof of her pain. Dillon felt it, just as he had the three times Monica had gone into labor, giving him two living children and one dead one. He couldn't share the intensity of the mare's pain, but he felt its depth and heat. She was doing fine. It wouldn't be long now.
It was good to have this birthing to occupy his mind, good to feel useful after the bad news he'd gotten earlier in the day. Nothing tragicnobody had died or moved to Texasbut news of the kind of personal defeat that made him see the fire in the river. His grant proposal had been turned down, the one Emily had worked on with him when she'd stopped over at Christmastime. He should have been able to make it happen. He could have talked to a few people on the Tribal Council about the idea to expand the horse camp he'd put together with Emily last summer with a little help from one of the local churches. He thought he'd made a good presentation to the selection committee, and people had been shaking his hand over it ever since. It was all his daughter's doing, he'd told them. She was studying horses at Montana Western University. She was already ten times smarter about horses than her ol' man, and he'd been around them all his life. The grant money was in the bag, they'd said.
What bag? Emmie would be out of school for the summer soon, coming home to an empty bag and an empty promise. He hadn't asked for muchjust enough to finish the kitchen and bathrooms in the old church building he'd been fixing up over the years, and a little more for supplies and camping equipment. Kids had been hounding him all winter about getting in on his next horse camp, but without financial backing, it would be hard to accommodate them all the way he wanted to, which would put a crimp in his daughter's plans for her big honors project for school.
Crimp. Not the complete kibosh. He had a little cash put away. He could round up a couple of tipis this year and add an overnight trail ride to the program. They'd had bigger ideas, though, the beginnings of an ongoing program. Flushed with last summer's success, Dillon had developed a sense of mission. He didn't want his generation to be the last to keep and know horses in some small but blessed semblance of the old Lakota way.
The foal's head appeared, slick and slender, glistening wet. Dillon's stomach quivered as the mare's muscles undulated with the final push. In a stunning split second, the slippery foal slid free of its frantic host. Mother and baby were especially vulnerable now. All they needed was a few minutes for the mare to catch her breath, transfer a last shot of her life's blood to her baby before it hauled itself up on wobbly legs and broke the cord and finally begin expelling the placenta, which could take a bit of time. The mare lifted her head and nosed her new baby.
But the coyotes smelled it, too. They were close. Dillon sensed the heat of their bloodlust and their stealthy advance before he could detect any movement. Then shadow slid past shadow. They were downwind, but the succulent smell of a fresh birth overpowered the scent of a mere man.
Dillon remained perfectly still while he rehearsed the shot in his mind's eye. When he moved, he was quick, sure and deadly accurate.