Night was always so black in the forest. It was only occasionally that the moonlight pierced through the gaps between the leaves of the tree canopy. When the moon was out, that is. Tonight there wasn't even that.
That was fine, thought Jim West as he poked thoughtfully at the small fire he had built to ward off the chill of the evening. Darkness meant there was less to distract him from his thoughts; only the night sounds and the low hof-hoffing of his horse occasionally jarred his reverie.
West was a man in his prime. His 5'7" frame was muscular and taut. Broad shoulders tapered down to a slim waist, slender hips and bulging thighs and calves. His face was incredibly handsome, with a long, slightly upturned nose, lips thin on the top, slightly softer below, a square jaw and evidence of deep dimples on either side of his mouth. His hair was thick, a rich, dark chestnut color; his eyes were an amazing green-gray, quick and expressive, intelligent and clear. Now they were nearly soft as the fire's glow danced and glittered in their light, but they could look through an opponent with the precision of a surgeon's knife.
He was sitting cross-legged before his fire now, a long, thin branch in his right hand for poking the embers. As he stared thoughtfully at the undulating flames, he rolled the branch absently between his thumb and forefinger.
Three days ago, West had angrily ridden away from the train that was home to him and his partner, Artemus Gordon. He and Gordon were Secret Service agents on special assignment under direct orders from President Ulysses S. Grant. They relied on and trusted each other with their lives. And they lived together 365 days a year in a lavishly furnished but somewhat cramped set of railroad cars. As close as they were, arguments were inevitable.
Sometimes, the arguments stemmed from their constant competition over women, or differences of opinion, but most often they were the result of fatigue after a particularly arduous case, or a long journey. This time, though, the shouting match had started because Artie was concerned about his friend. He thought Jim needed some time away, and Jim had vigorously objected to the suggestion.
"Jim, I know you're supposed to be the indestructible, unflappable star of the Secret Service, but, Lord, man, the last time I knew, you were still human," Artie had said. "No one could go through what you just did and not be effected by it. I would think you didn't care if this didn't get to you."
"Damn it, Artie, I can handle this!" Jim had shouted in answer. "I went through the same war you did, and I saw men's heads explode from shells, and bodies ripped open, over and over again! I live a life full of violence! That's my choice, and if I didn't think I could deal with it, I wouldn't be IN this business!"
"And how many times in your blood-soaked career have you seen two little children burned alive?" Artie had shot back pointedly, his dark brown eyes flashing.
Jim had started to return an argument to that, but closed his mouth into a narrow slit when no answer came to him. He had glared at Artie, turned on his heel and stormed out of the parlor. Thirty minutes later he had ridden away with enough provisions to keep him alone in the wilderness for a week.
Artie had watched him from the parlor window with a mixture of concern and relief. He knew is friend wasn't falling apart--yet. And he knew Jim needed time alone, that he'd work through his anger and get to the real problem eventually. But Artie also knew what Jim had seen, how much he felt and how deeply he felt it, hidden under a thick layer of cool confidence in his ability to always come to the rescue. Jim must be reeling inside from the realization that this time, he had been completely helpless. Worry twitched at the edge of Artie's expressive face. He ran his long, slender fingers through a shock of dark curly hair and turned away.
West thought back over this leaving as he watched the dwindling flames. Artie was right, and he knew it. No matter how much he'd tried, he couldn't stop thinking, dreaming about that day a month ago. He'd worked out for hours at a time, not eating, not sleeping, trying to block out his feelings of utter failure. Nothing had worked. He'd even started drinking before noon. That had worked for awhile, but he knew it was temporary, and he didn't like the sense of losing control.
Control? HA! Jim thought angrily. What control? He jumped up and began to pace furiously around his camp site. If he was so in control, so capable, why were two innocent children dead? Their screams haunted his every breath--WHAT control? He couldn't come to grips with that, either. He was angry that he couldn't save them, and angry that he couldn't accept that fact. Control? WHAT control?
West wished he had a whole bottle of Kentucky bourbon in the saddlebag that hung from a tree limb near his horse. He just wanted to stop the feelings, the screams, the visions.
NO! Who ARE you, West? He thought. You've never run from anything!
His black stallion sensed the tension in the air and stamped the ground nervously, watching his master with deep, steady eyes. The animal could always feel the energy in the air when West was tense, but this was different. The rage, confusion, and intensity swirling like a tornado inside the man was unknown, something the stallion couldn't understand.
A moment later, the emotional fury tore out of James West. A primal, animal roar escaped his lips, his mouth open wide, his whole body tightened in the scream. The man became the emotion. His fists lashed out, connecting with an oak tree. Again and again, West drove his fists into the rough bark, so overwhelmed with the intensity of release that he could feel nothing else. Every ounce of his weight went into each strike, until his knuckles were raw ans bleeding. At last he sank down, holding tightly to the tree for support and sucking the cool, damp air back into his lungs.
* * * * * * * * *
"And you don't even know WHERE he went?"
Artie shook his head. "No, Colonel. We weren't on speaking terms when he left."
The older, shorter man was Col. Richmond, head of the Denver office of the United States Secret Service. He was slighter than Gordon, with dark blond hair that lay flat and neat against his head, and a permanently worried look on his face. For as long as Gordon had known him, his superior had never been seen in public in anything but a full suit, dress shirt and cravat. Richmond was a precise and immaculate man.
Now he paced back and forth in front of the mantle, puffing like a steam shovel.
"You tell me you're worried about Jim, he's drinking, he's not sleeping, he's distracted, and you let him charge off into the wilderness in that state because you're not on SPEAKING TERMS?" Richmond fumed. "I can't BELIEVE this!"
Artie smiled. The Colonel could never see past his own anxiety to understand some of the nuances of another's character.
"Colonel, " he said quietly, "Jim didn't take any liquor with him. I checked the cabinet. He packed for a trip into the woods. He prepared well. He knew what he was doing. I figure Jim knew as well as I did that he needed to get away and deal with this. He just couldn't admit it to me."
The older man sighed and plopped down onto one of the back-to-back gold plush sofas.
"You're probably right, " he said. "It's just so unlike him to act like this. On the other hand, I don't know if I could handle something like this at all."
Artie sat down at the window seat. "Jim sees himself as someone who can help people in any situation. Especially the most helpless. He's seen a lot of death, but not like this time."
Richmond stared thoughtfully down at his hands resting in his lap. "I know what it said in your report, Artemus," he said quietly. "But you were pointedly general in your descriptions. I know that two children died in that fire. Tell me more."
Artie frowned. "It was as I wrote in the report," he began. "We went to Tannehouk to investigate the disappearance of several army pay shipments. What we found was people who were starving because a larg gang of cutthroats had come into town, robbed them, and surrounded them, choking off every means of communication with the rest of the world. No one could leave, no on e could come in. The townspeople could only go to the ruffians for supplies, and in return, they had to help them to rob and terrorize anyone who came their way.
"We managed to scope out the place and stay out of sight, thanks to an older widow lady who was raising he grandchildren."
Artie nodded. "The reason she was raising them was because her son had lost his wife in childbirth, and he had been killed by the cutthroats. She was angry, and she wanted to fight back in any way she could, but she was afraid for her granddaughter and grandson, Jennie and Tom." Gordon looked off into space and thought a moment. When he spoke again, his voice was soft. "Jennie was nine, Tom was four. Blond hair, blue eyes, both of them. Like and angel and an imp. And smart...Jennie loved Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
"We assured Mrs. Wickam that we would protect her and her family. Jim told her, 'I give you my word, and I always keep my word, especially to beautiful ladies.' He charmed her and Jennie, just like always. And he believed himself, like always.
"In about three weeks, we finally had enough evidence against these outlaws, and found out where the money had gone, but we needed the army to come in, so I sneaked out of town and headed for Fort Stevens. Jim stayed behind in case of trouble.
"The children had been very quiet, never telling anyone we were around. But one day they went out to play in the yard, and Tom told a friend who dropped by that they didn't have to be afraid anymore. Things were going to be okay, somebody had promised him so.
"That's all it took. One little boy being relieved of fear. The word got back to the gang, and they came to kill while I was gone. Jim heard something outside, he told me when it was over. And he went to investigate. It was the dead of night, no moon. It was hard to see, even when his eyes got used to it. He stopped seven or eight of them, but he couldn't stop one from throwing a torch through a window. The cavalry was in the town, and so were the thugs. Jim realized help was on the way, and he broke away from the fight and rushed into the burning house. He met Mrs. Wickam just inside the kitchen door and got her out.
"Jenny and Tom slept in a garret room. They liked it up there, because they had the entire floor to themselves, a place to play when they were afraid to go out because of the outlaws. The house was so dry." Artie shook his head and paused.
"Jim tried so hard. The house was tinder, and completely enveloped in flames by the time he got Mrs. Wickam to safety away from the outlaws. He didn't care. He could hear Jenny and Tom screaming. Some soldiers rode up with me just as he disappeared inside the front door. He was beaten back once, twice, by the flames. I got to him and tried to hold him back from trying again, but he knocked me flat. That was his last try. The stairs collapsed under him. I ran in after him. He and I were lucky to get out at all. He was gasping, unable to get air into his lungs, but he wouldn't stop. I knew all he could hear were those voices. They were calling for HIM, by name. It took five of us to hold him down. They screamed his name--till they didn't scream anymore. The house burned flat with them inside. Jim went back the next morning and wouldn't stop picking through the charred rubble till he found them. He carried out their remains cradled in his arms. I have never seen him look like that. It was as if--he wasn't--there at all," Artie's voice caught an he stopped. His dark eyes filled.
"I didn't..."Richmond spoke after a long silence, but his voice trailed off.
Gordon sighed. "Jim sustained minor burns on his hands and legs. On the outside he was fine, but he just hasn't been the same since that night."
Richmond looked intently at Gordon. "And how do you imagine Jim can handle all that out there by himself?"
Artie looked back quietly. "Colonel, that's the only way he CAN handle it."
* * * * * * * * *
The sun was high in the sky above the Indian village. It was hot. Even the children were sitting under shade trees, playing at quiet games. Women were busy at their beading and weaving; men were cleaning meat from a recent successful hunt.
American Knife sat watching his people from a chair outside his tipi, an indulgence gleaned from his time among white culture. He liked rocking chairs better than stumps. He was shaman of this village, a great honor for one so young. A tall man of about 35 with elongated facial features and deep-set dark eyes, his long black hair was down except for a band around his head. American Knife wore a cloth summer tunic and pants. Light-colored for the season. Beside him lay an open volume of Longfellow.
Suddenly, he looked toward a movement in the trees just beyond the far tipis. A rider was approaching on a black horse, the medicine man could tell that much. Not riding like an Indian' besides, no one he knew in the Cheyenne had a horse quite like this one.
Some of the braves tensed as they caught sight of the approaching visitor. The men weren't too concerned, it being a lone rider. And whoever it was seemed to be riding unafraid toward a village of Cheyenne. His lack of fear contented them that he must be on friendly business.
As the white man emerged from the woods, American Knife smiled broadly and rose to meet his friend, James West.
"Ah, so THAT is who dares to approach a whole village of Cheyenne Warriors. James West," the Indian had a deep voice and a distinctly Eastern white accent.
Something about the look in West's eyes made his friend slow his pace and become serious. He stood still and matched Jim's gaze in silence for a long moment. At last he spoke again.
"I take it this is not merely a social call from an old friend."
The slightest hint of a smile flickered across West's face, and he dismounted. As he did so, American Knife noticed his raw, swollen knuckles.
"And I see your last opponent was not forgiving."
The two men walked toward the shaman's tipi while the stallion sniffed out some grass and started munching.
"You're right about that," Jim said. "My last opponent was me."
The taller man looked closely at his friend. "Ah. The most challenging opponent of all."
They sat down, each on a chair in front of the tent door. As was the Indian way, American Knife kept silent and waited for West to say what was on his mind.
West looked around. The villagers were going about their lives as Indians had for generations. To look at the scene, he could imagine he was the first white man to see a Cheyenne village, before their way of life had ever been threatened. He glanced at the children under the trees, inwardly cringed, and turned away.
"I came to find some answers," Jim said at last.
"You have never seemed a man who found it hard to find answers."
"I know. There have been things I've struggled with, but not like this. I've known you for awhile, American Knife. You were educated by whites, went to Dartmouth, and yet you came back to your people. I thought maybe if I can't find the answers in my world, I can find them in yours."
American Knife was quiet, studying West's face. At last, he rose slowly. "I need to speak to some others. Please, stay comfortable." He turned and walked away, leaving Jim abruptly alone.
West watched as the medicine man went to a few tipis, speaking quietly with men of different ages. Presently, he returned.
"James West, tonight we will have sweat lodge. You will join us. Perhaps you may find your answers there. But before that, let us see what native herbs we can conjure to heal your hands.
* * * * * * * * *
The light and shadows danced in tandem against the rounded walls of the sweat lodge. In the midst of the circle of wood and flame, hot round stones steamed and filled the air with a moist cloud.
Adding to the otherworldly atmosphere of the lodge were the faces of men staring silently into the flames. Although always visible to each other, the shadows and reflected light played with their features, making them seem something other than fully human.
The group, which numbered six in all, sat cross-legged with hands resting on knees or in laps. Stripped to the waist, their bodies were slick with sweat. The group represented the ages of man. Two were young braves with features not yet at their ultimate potential; their faces and muscles were alive with animation, and they found it hard to sit still. Their eyes darted about the lodge; they were anxious for the next adventure, but still they struggled to empty their minds of distractions.
American Knife sat beside another brave about the same age as himself. These were men in full maturity, hard-muscled and with the wisdom of experience in their faces. Both had battle scars. They were better-versed in meditation, better able to hold their energy in check.
Beside them sat the ancient chief. His face and body were well-worn, his muscles and skin no longer tight. Creases crossed and recrossed his face, and he bore the many scars of battles fought and life lived. His energy had mellowed into grace and quiet self-assurance.
James West sat with them. In age, he was between the young braves and American Knife. He, too, had an aura of great energy, but it was held under great control, so that he was quiet and unmoving. His eyes stared motionless at the sacred flame, but he knew every detail of the scene around him. No matter what his state of mind, this was who he was.
He was aware of the drops of moisture that periodically dripped from the ends of his hair down his nose, and the back of his neck, but he didn't flinch when he felt their impact against his skin. When he was in motion, he was entirely so, when at rest, entirely so. Long ago, Faulkener had taught him that. Gideon Faulkener. Kendo--Japanese swordplay. A mentor. A friend. A traitor who in the end tried to kill him, but who ended up killing himself by mistake. West didn't blame himself for that. It had hurt, but he didn't blame himself. He wouldn't have if he had delivered the coup de gras. They had simply chosen different sides in the end. It was the way of life. And death. But men could decide. Men were men because they DID decide, and because they were old enough to do so.
When did one become a man, then? At 18? When did he make the decision to go to war? At 20. Did that make him a man? Some boys ran away for the adventure of war at the age of 12, and died before they were 15. Were they old enough to decide?
Somewhere near the edge of the village a young boy practiced the drum with rythmic enthusiasm. To Indians there are three very sacred things--the circle, the pipe, and the drum. This child, although determined, would not play for a ceremony until he was in his teens. He wasn't a man yet. Jim winced almost imperceptibly. Tom hadn't been a man yet, either. And Jennie hadn't been a woman. For them there had been no choices. The only choices they had made in their childlike innocence had been to trust his promise, and they had died because he had betrayed them with his own failure.
The blessing of being in sweat lodge was that, while you weren't alone, you were not judged, and your thoughts were your own. No eyes were on him. Each man pondered his own life, yet each was connected to all the others. James West was grateful for both aspects of the sacred circle. As the steam continued to cleanse his pores, so the flame and the silence worked on his mind and his heart.
There were so many deaths in West's life. A war full of thousands and thousands of boys whose futures were stolen by miniballs and shells. He'd done his share of killing in that war, and he'd seen his friends cut down over and over again.
When the war ended, he had stayed with the horse cavalry, gaining the rank of captain while dabbling in espionage when his commanding officers noticed his knack for weedling his way into places they couldn't go and noticing the significance of information they saw as trivial. West liked it. It was exciting, infinitely interesting, and he was good at it. Very good. And--it kept him out of fighting Indians, which often meant raiding villages full of women and children. Jim watched the fire dully as he felt his anger rise, anger at his fellow cavalrymen who talked about Indians like they were animals, objects, or worse. The same men who had fought to free the slaves, and who now called them by the same names as the Rebels had before them. If these men could see him now, they'd sneer and say he'd "gone Injun"--just before he flattened them with a good right cross. A man was simply a man, after all, no matter the color of his skin or his way of life, as long as it was an honorable one.
Death. He'd never gotten used to it. But death eventually came to adults. Not to children. Not to those who had no choice yet. Certainly not violent death.
Was that his problem? Why couldn't he get beyond this? West squirmed uneasily as the horrible visions came rushing back to him.
American Knife gazed at his friend. He knew James West as a cool, confident warrior, but he also remembered the pain the man had suffered when an old friend had betrayed him and tried to kill him. It had been that incident which had cemented their relationship. It was a friendship based on mutual respect for each other's humanity. That's why American Knife had killed the old friend for West. Now he looked at the man's bandaged knuckles and wondered what rage had caused those wounds. Probably he had found his own humanity.
Suddenly, West jumped to his feet, and in the same fluid motion disappeared out the doorway. The other men were momentarily startled, then quickly shifted their places to enclosed the circle. American Knife looked at the old chief for permission to follow; the old man nodded, still staring at the fire.
James was pacing near the edge of the village like a trapped cougar. The shaman stood watching him for a time. Finally, he approached the man.
"A man whose spirit is turned inside itself with shrivel and die," he said quietly.
West recoiled and spun to face the Indian, fists up, in a fighting stance. Then, with an effort, he slowly relaxed and dropped his bandaged hands to his side.
"And a man who runs away from his pain will forever be looking behind him," American Knife continued.
Jim looked hard at the other man, then sighed and bit his upper lip thoughtfully.
"That is Indian for, 'let's talk'", his friend said.
A wry smile flicked quickly across Jim's face before disappearing. He breathed deeply and focused. Then he spoke.
"I've faced death and horror since I was 20, American Knife. My life is full of violence. It's what I do, it's what I know. I'm just not sure--I can do it anymore. I've never run away from anything in my life. I won't run away from what I do. But these thoughts won't leave me alone. They haunt my dreams, when I can sleep; they cloud my focus. I can't do my work like this. I have enemies who would have me dead, who I can't protect myself from if I'm distracted."
"Very true, James West. And why would a man who lives like this let thoughts distract him?"
"Because the thoughts are about two children who burned to death because they believed my promise to protect them."
The medicine man said nothing, but a long breath escaped from between his lips as he studied his friend's troubled face. Jim tipped his head to the left and looked down.
"Jenny was a blonde, sweet, quiet little girl who was too scared for her age, and Tom was still a baby," he continued. "I should have told their grandmother to move their room to another floor, nearer hers. I could have gotten them before the stairs collapsed. I knew better. I knew fire was a possibility. These roughnecks had burned other people out. I was so sure I could protect them that I didn't insist on something I should have considered. I wanted them to feel safe, to keep that play room, the only place they felt safe. And my overconfidence killed them."
He drew back his left arm, his fist ready for the nearest tree. His whole weight threw the punch forward--and American Knife's left arm shot forward and pulled the missile off-course.
"It is annoying to have one ruin my handiwork," he commented as West glared at him. "If you can pull yourself away from these enemy trees, I would like to show you something inside my tipi."
The two half-naked men walked slowly past the other tents, mostly quiet in the late evening. Inside the tipi, among the soft bed-skins and blankets, lay a thin book visible from the fires that dotted the ground outside. American Knife tied back the door flaps for the light and picked up the volume. He handed it to West and sat down on a skin.
Jim turned the dark-colored book over in his hands and read the title: "The Song of Hiawatha", by Henry W. Longfellow."
He eyed his friend skeptically. American Knife smiled.
"As you know," he said, "Nuns took me in when my parents died. They educated me as a white man, and I went on to attend Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, before I decided I belonged with my own people. Mr. Longfellow is from Maine. The Indians there are all but wiped out, yet he feels he is qualified to write about us. So I wanted to read his poetic tale of the Noble Red Man. I enjoy a fantasy from time to time."
West sat down on the skin across from the other man.
"Mmm. The fantasy of the Noble Red Man."
"I thought that was a compliment."
"It is meant that way by those who do not wish to think of us as human."
Jim looked into American Knife's eyes and saw the truth of what he said.
"When I was with the whites, I was squeezed into a mold where I did not fit, because who I was was not acceptable to the whites or to their god, according to them. Then I went to Dartmouth and lived among those who felt they were better than those other whites, because they put me on a high place, because my ways were somehow exotic and mysterious to them, something to be studied. But they were the same as all the other whites they looked down upon."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because what they all were too uncomfortable to do was to see me as--human."
Jim looked down at his hands. "Are you saying I'm human, too?"
"You said it," his friend smiled. "I am looked on by well-meaning people as being somehow apart from them, as always having finer reasons for doing what I do, simply because my people tend to live in a pre-industrial way. And others hate me for the same reason. Mostly whites hate us becuase we were here first, but they don't like to admit it. That makes THEM human." The medicine man looked at Jim. "Who is it that will not let YOU be human, James West?"
* * * * * * * * *
The dream was vivid, as always before, but this time it was linear, one image following another in a way meant to be understood.
This time, Jim West helped Jenny and Tom move their things into the small room beside their grandmother's bedroom. They protested, but they trusted him, and promised him that they would stay away from the garret until the cutthroats went away.
The night of the fire came, just like always before. He heard something, ran outside and into a struggle against several roughnecks. One ran by him with a torch and hurled it through a front window. As with all the other dreams, Jim pulled away from the fight as the cavalry rode toward the house and ran to save the occupants. Mrs. Wickam he rushed to safety. She was frantic because she couldn't find the children Just like before, he ran back into the inferno, trying to find them. He made it to their bedroom, but they were gone. Then the screams began, from the garret. They had promised, and they had broken that promise. Because they were children. Because they were human, like him. All else was the same as it had been that night. He tried three times to get them. The stairs collapsed. Artie pulled him out just in time. The children's screams ended, and they died. Just as before.
The sun had risen high in the Oklahoma sky when Jim West finally woke up, rubbed his eyes and stretched. He lay there for a time, thinking about the dream, putting things in their proper place in his head. In this dream, he had done all he could, and still the children died. Even as children, they had made a choice. So the way of life and death had found them, just as it would any living thing. And it continued, with or without him. Hm. Perhaps, to be human was simply to accept that circle of things. But then, what was the reason to fight, to do, to make differences?
Jim sat up and looked around the tipi. His friend had obviously started his day, because he was gone from the bed skin. Perhaps the only reason one needed to fight and to do was because it was part of that same circle, West thought. Perhaps that was enough to know. And, besides, between the ends of birth and death, there seemed to be a lot of variables. Maybe the differences made were entirely in the variables.
He rolled to a squat and moved the tent flaps aside. Wincing at the bright daylight, he noticed American Knife sitting in his chair, munching on some dried meat.
"Hungry?" the shaman asked as Jim took the seat opposite him.
West accepted the meat.
"You slept quietly last night," American Knife observed matter-of-factly. "Have you settled anything in your own mind?"
Jim thought for a long minute while he chewed on the strip of buffalo meat.
"The differences are in the variables," he said at last.
"Ah, I had no idea you were a mathematician." the Indian smiled.
"No, Artie is the math wizard," Jim said. "I'm the one who just bulls his way through things. More of a do-er."
"But now, James West, will you still be a do-er?"
The younger man looked thoughtfully down at his bandaged hands. "Yes," he answered. "Yes, it's worth it to keep doing what I do. I can make a difference. I just can't change the ultimate outcome of life."
"How did you become so wise?'
"Indian magic," Jim smiled.
"Oh, the Noble Red Man concept again?"
"No, just human."
Two young Indian children approached the men, a boy and a girl. The girl was taller, and obviously older than the boy, and from their matching features, it was apparent that they were closely related. Both had their long black hair in braids on either side of their heads, and they wore matching headbands of red and yellow woven cloth. Their round, flat faces were full with youth, and their dark skin shone in the sunlight. They approached the white stranger with curiosity widening their dark brown eyes.
"Ah, come, Young Bear, Little Fox," American Knife beckoned the children with his hand. "You must meet my friend, James West."
Something in the pit of West's gut seized up into a knot as he watched the young people approach him. He wondered if he could ever look at children the same way again.
The boy seemed shy, and hid behind the girl's skirt as she boldly approached the stranger. There was no fear in her face, only an intelligent curiosity about this oddly-dressed, differently-skinned man. She was about 7 or 8 years old, Jim guessed, but even young girls seemed drawn to him, mostly because they felt safe with him. This girl sensed that safety, even as she felt his hesitancy at her approach. She didn't understand, but that was not enough to concern her. She held the little boy's hand and came confidently forward till she stood at his elbow.
"Hello, Little Fox, Young Bear," Jim said softly. "I'm very pleased to meet you both. Do I take it that you, " he addressed the girl with an open smile,"Are Little Fox?"
The girl smiled broadly and nodded. "I am Little Fox," she said in halting English. "You are--Jameswest?"
West grinned. "Yes, that's two words, though, like Little Fox," he said. "James West. Who taught you my language?"
Little Fox looked at American Knife. "American Knife teaches anyone who will learn, " she said. "I know the talk, but Young Bear is not old enough to learn it yet. And he does not come forward like I do."
"I can see that," Jim was feeling more at ease now, being put into a relaxed state of mind by the girl's openness and trust. "What does Little Bear have in his hands, there?"
Little Fox glanced behind her. "It is a ball for rolling. Young Bear likes balls."
Jim peeked carefully around the girl's shoulder and smiled at the boy, who crouched closer to his sister and threw a furtive look up at the stranger.
"Can you tell him that I would like to show him a game he can play with that ball, Little Fox?"
The girl struggled to free herself from the boy's tight grasp, twisted around and spoke to him in Cheyenne. At first he shook his head and buried his face in her side, then peeked out with one eye to watch what the white man would do.
"I think I know the game you mean, James West, " American Knife interjected. He got up, took the ball gently from the boy's reluctantly yielding grasp, and walked toward the middle of the village. Jim and the children followed.
When they reached the very center of the village, the two men stood facing each other from a distance of about 30 feet. Little Fox and Young Bear watched from the side. American Knife looked solemnly at his friend with his best adversarial stance and wound up a pitch. The ball flew swiftly across the gap, and Jim West caught it deftly in one hand, then shook the hand vigorously, having forgotten the wounded knuckles. He tossed the missile back to the Indian and held up a hand in a sign to wait, looked around, and found a stick about the right size from a pile of wood near a dead campfire. Returning to his spot, he hit the ground with the end of the stick, once, twice, and then lifted it to his right shoulder, nodding his head to indicate he was ready.
The pitch drove toward him, but Jim was ready. The crack of the stick hitting the ball startled Young Bear, and he jumped back, then looked in awe at the ball sailing high across the village and landing on the edge of the forest beyond.
"It's called base ball," Jim explained to Little Fox, who was equally impressed. "We played something like this when I was a soldier."
At the word "soldier", the children both stepped back apprehensively. With a twinge of recognition, Jim watched their reaction sadly.
"Not all soldiers fight our people," American Knife assured the children. "James West was not that kind of soldier. He fought his own people, as we do other tribes at times." He looked at his friend's hurt expression. "It is part of life sometimes. But he is a good man. For a white eyes." He grinned.
Little Fox smiled and nodded, then turned to her brother and spoke to him in their own language. He looked at her a moment, and then whispered in her ear.
"Can James West teach us to play this base ball?" She asked for both of them.
Jim smiled, turned to the girl, and bowed deeply. "I would be honored to teach you both how to play," he said.
The sun shown high in the sky when the children went home in answer to their mother's call for the midday meal. Jim and American Knife walked back to the shaman's tipi.
"I will have your horse readied for your trip back to Artemus," the Indian said to his friend. "I suspect you will be wanting to return soon."
"What makes you think I'm ready to leave?" asked West.
"Are you not?"
"I didn't say you were wrong, American Knife. I just wondered if you had read my mind."
"Indian Magic. The same as you possess, James West," the shaman answered. "Only you call it observation. Secret Service agents are not the only ones who find such a skill useful."
The two men sat down opposite each other and West began to unwrap his hands. Looking at the still- scarred knuckles beneath, he was impressed that the swelling was gone, and that the skin had already started to heal.
"I will pack you some of those herbs," the other man said. "Just continue to put them on your knuckles and wrap them until they start to return to their right color. You know, dirty white."
When West's horse was saddled and packed up, Jim stood beside the animal, ready to say goodbye. American Knife brought the herbs in a medicine bag and handed them to his friend.
"Just crush and add water. Apply liberally," he instructed.
West tucked the herbs away in his saddlebag. "Thank you. I'll do that. Right now, I'd like to give them some air, though."
The men stood quietly for a moment or two, and then Jim swung up into the saddle. He reached down and clasped right hands with the shaman.
"Goodbye for now, Friend," he said with a quiet smile. "And thank you for your help in finding those answers."
The Indian slid his hand forward and grasped Jim's wrist. "Glad to be of assistance. If I ever have questions I find hard to answer, I will be your way. You are quite a wise man yourself, you know."
"Thanks," West said. "But I'd try Little Fox and Young Bear first. They seem to have that Indian magic themselves."
"No, just innocence. Sometimes, that is enough."
American Knife watched for a long time as his friend turned and rode back into the woodland path, long after he had disappeared into the trees. Then, he turned and walked back into his village.
Artie sat by the parlor windows reading. He'd kept himself busy since Jim left, trying not to worry. His frown disclosed the struggle he was having to concentrate on the book in his hand.
He caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to look out at the path leading to the tracks. A smile crossed his soft lips when he recognized James West approaching. Gordon noticed that his partner was riding high in the saddle--when he had ridden away, he had been bent over his horse in angry determination. A good sign, at least, Artie thought.
Artie watched Jim ride up and reining in the black stallion near the baggage car. Shortly, he heard the clumping of hooves as the horse was put away. When West opened the door from the sleeping quarters a few minutes later, his friend sat watching him silently but expectantly.
Jim returned the gaze with a smile.
"Hi, Artie," he said matter-of-factly.
Artie sighed. Would he EVER know what had happened. He fought the urge to yell, "Is that all you can say?"
Instead, he returned the greeting. "Hi Jim, how've you been?"
West sat down in the gold plush center couch which faced the back of the car and stretched his legs to their full length. He yawned expansively, untied his neckerchief and removed his dark blue corduroy jacket, which he tossed down beside him.
"Do you have any wine on hand, Artie?"
"Are you sure you don't want something stronger?"
"No. Wine's good."
"Red or white?"
Artie sucked in his breath and rose, starting for their wine rack in a back car. He knew this conversation was going nowhere. As he reached the door, Jim spoke.
"I'm okay. I figured it out."
Gordon turned, his expressive face a picture of relief.
"Oh, Jim, that's great, Buddy!"
"You'll never believe this. I decided I was human."
"Go figure," Artie grinned.
"I'll tell you the whole story over a glass of that wine."
"I've got a better idea," Gordon said. "You could tell me over dinner."
"Your favorite--a fine, aged steak."
Jim grinned. "That sounds great,": he said. "You're a much better cook than American Knife. I'm suddenly famished."
"American Knife, huh?" Artie asked. "This sounds like quite a story."
"It is. And, Artie?"
"You can get me angry anytime I need it."
Artemus Gordon smiled at his partner. "Anytime, Jim," he said, "Anytime."
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