The Return of Winona

by Chris

It was on the third day after the accident, when hope had finally begun to fade, that he first heard the child.

Curled under a ledge of crumbling rock to avoid the sun's furnace heat, Slim stirred, trying to wipe grit from his raw eyes, bemused at the unexpected sound. The mountains strode into distance with a faint bloom of mist upon them, but there was no mist here. No moisture. No cloud to dim the merciless tyrant sun, a ball of burning dust, a dragon that scorched to the bone.

He couldn't hope for rescue. Jess was way down in Colorado, ranch business that would keep him away for a least another week. Not even Traveller could sprout wings and fly him home any faster. No, this time he would have to rely on his own resources. Daisy would fret and Jess would find him, he could expect that, but maybe by then all he would be was a heap of bone, chewed over by desert critters. Maybe.

Slim gritted his teeth and dragged himself up, listening to the baby's wail. Come evening he would have to set off again, dragging his burden of a broken ankle, using the branch of dead cottonwood as a rickety crutch.

Confound the child! What was it doing out in this Godforsaken outpost of Hell?

He had been dreaming of water.

Cataracts and torrents falling down mountains. The cool gush of brightness as young Mike worked the pump on washing day. The time when goaded by Jess, he'd tipped him into the nearest horse-trough and Harper had pulled him in with him for an unexpected dunking. The tranquil lake where they fished and Andy had taught Jess to swim after he'd nearly drowned on the Lolo. Raindrops lancing down from the thunder shower as Winona unexpectedly followed him home.

Sherman wiped his gritty face on his sleeve and listened to the crying child. No child should be out here in the desert with the winds of sunset blowing hot and dusty across the barrens. If he moved now, perhaps he could find it before the buzzards did.

How could he ever look Daisy in the eye, not responding to a child's cry?

He heaved himself up, dragging his useless leg, to answer that cry. Answered it, inspite of pain and lack of water. Inspite of the sun's heat still burning in the sand. Onward (Homeward? He had no idea just then) wishing the horse hadn't stepped on that damned rattler and struck and dying, had rolled on him.

Onward, the whisper of the baby's wail in his ears, as the sunset faded and the first stars came out like lamps. Presently there was a moon floating like a curved feather in the sky and a whisper of a different kind. A thin breeze to cool his swollen throat.

Where was the child? Surely he must find it soon? It would be a fair burden to manage in his present state, but he would - must - manage to find and carry it out of this infernal place. Another orphan, like Mike? Daisy could cope with a baby, Daisy Cooper could cope with anything. Not even a tornado could perturb that wonderful old lady. Now Jess could grouse. Oh, for sure, he'd complain about sleepless nights, but he'd sure laugh watching tough Mr Harper dealing with a wet diaper...

...Slim fell, the makeshift crutch sheared clean through. White hot agony lanced up from his ankle. He lay hunched over the pain, and felt wetness under his hand. Blackness on his hand, the slow welling of blood from his palm. A knife, half buried in the sand, the handle finely carved with Indian pictoglyphs. Arapaho?

When he managed to drag himself up again, he used the knife to demolish the spines and slice cactus. Grimly he chewed the spongy pulp for moisture. That kept him going for a while. Soon he must find the child, before the sun got up again, or neither of them would last the day through.

His last thought as he slipped into unconsciousness, was of the lost child.

"You were truly fortunate, Sherman," Quinto said.

"Yeah," Slim answered, with a rueful smile. "Reckon I had my guardian Angel in a panic this time."

"More fortunate than you know, my friend. We do not usually ride that trail."

"Why then...?"

The younger Arapaho lifted his face in a strange, almost luminous smile, "I dreamed of my wife. The one who is gone. She was calling me to follow her. So impetuous, so like her." And Slim saw tears on the granite of his face.

"Winona's dead?" It was like a blow to the gut. Slim had become fond of her in the short time she had stayed at Twelve Mile House.

"And the child with her. Cholera, the white men's fever."

"Gone to the next turning of the Wheel, she and the little one," Jacero said, more harshly than he intended.

"I heard it. Kept right on, when I wanted to give up."

"Were it not for our lost ones and Jacero's dream, I doubt you would be coming home to your family now." The leather-faced Arapaho shook his head in bemusement."I knew you were part of something strange when I saw her knife in your belt."

" Look, there is the boy, Mike," the old man interrupted.

Slim felt tears prickle his own eyes. Lifting his head from the pony-drag, he could see Mike running up the steep trail like he had a maddened steer encouraging him on. And there was his pard, Jess, a pace behind, overtaking him. "Help me up, Jacero."

Jess flung himself forward and lifted his friend up in a great bear-hug. "Where you been? Just look at you, sun-fried! How the hell you get out of this one?"

"Yeah, an' I'm glad to see you too, Jess."

Slim Sherman put his arm around his friend's shoulder for support, and looked back the way he'd come. Mile after painful mile. But sanctuary was close now, the home he'd thought he'd never see again. The people who would not have to mourn him.

"D'you see?" he whispered. "Look, Jess..."

"What? Oh, man-" and they were both silent.

On the distant ridge a slender figure was outlined against the setting sun. A young woman with hair like an ebony waterfall, her face serene. A baby in her arms. Slim could hear its satisfied, sleepy croon of contentment.

A baby that did not cry.


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