Donners of the Dead

Page 1

Chapter One

Pre-Nevada Statehood, 1851

The dreams never start the same, but they always end the same.

In death.

My father’s death.

Sometimes I am six years old again and playing in the Truckee River, throwing up the cold mountain runoff with my tiny hands and shooting shy glances at him as he watches me, the smile spreading wide on his auburn face. Sometimes we are walking hand-in-hand down the dusty dirt road toward Mrs. Young’s homestead where he’ll leave me for a few hours to learn maths while he enquires at Barker’s General Store whether there are any hunting requests for him. And sometimes we are just sitting on the rickety porch back at our old place, watching the insects gather around the lantern as he tells me the Washoe names for them. They always sounded so poetic coming from his native tongue.

No matter how the dreams start though, how wonderful the memories are, I can never enjoy them. I know they are about to be ripped from my heart. In a matter of seconds, the picture changes. In the river, he jumps into the water to join me, but never surfaces again. On the road, he drops my hand and runs away into a cloud of dirt. The worst one is what happens to him while we spend the evening hours on the porch. A low, guttural growl emerges from the surrounding pines, as if the trees themselves have unfinished business with him. Pa gets to his feet slowly, hesitantly, and walks straight into the forest. He doesn’t even send me a backwards glance. Then the pines shake, their silhouettes frenzied against the moon, and I hear him for the last time.

One final scream.

Like always, I wake up covered in a thin sheen of sweat.

As I poured my bedside water jug onto my rag and wet my face, the reality sinks back in. I’m alive, in my bed, but my father is not. He really is dead, and the irony is that I sometimes wish those nightmares were real. At least then I would know what happened to him. Either he drowned, or ran away from me, or the trees ate him. I’d take any of those to at least have an answer of why he left on that tracking expedition and never came back.

This night though, I had no time to feel the heaviness in my heart. Far away hollering interrupted my sleep and I stood without thinking. I fumbled to light the candle in my stall-sized bedroom then quickly slipped on my cloak and opened the door into the main room. It was dark and no one else in my uncle’s house was stirring.

I paused, feeling slightly foolish at my impulsiveness and listened for a few beats, trying to catch my ragged breath.

The hollering started again, coming closer to us. My uncle’s ranch was on the far outskirts of the settlement. Whoever was out there was in serious trouble.

I gathered my cloak closer to me and made my way to the front door, about to open it, when someone on the other side started pounding on it wildly. I nearly screamed. I waited for a break before I opened it and saw our neighbor, Ned Kincaid, on our porch, looking like he’d seen something worse than a ghost.

“Eve!” he managed to croak out before collapsing into a coughing fit. I put my arm around him and began to lead him inside the house. He shook his head and leaned against the doorframe. “No, it’s still out there.”

“What’s still out there?” I looked past him but only saw darkness cloaking the nearby acres and the pinpricks of stars in the sky. There was a strange pounding noise though, faint but wicked, off in the distance. Like Ned had, it was also coming in our direction.

“Nero!” he yelled and glanced behind him, his eyes glowing white from fear.

Nero was Ned’s horse. A magnificent coal-colored stallion that I’d often see trotting proudly in his pasture.

“Evie, what are you doing, who is that?” my Uncle Pat’s voice boomed from behind me. He was standing at the foot of the stairs, lantern in hand, my frail Aunt June cowering behind him and holding onto his long johns.

Ned stepped clumsily into the house and looked at my uncle imploringly. “It’s Nero. He’s sick, Pat. He tried to kill us!”

The corner of my uncle’s mouth turned up at Ned’s outburst.

“Now, Ned, let’s calm down a bit here before we—”

“I’m serious!” he screamed so sharply that Pat’s mouth was replaced with a hard, thin line. I sucked in my breath and took another look outside.

“Perhaps we should close the door,” I said quietly, reaching over for the handle. Whether Nero was actually trying to kill Ned or not, the late September night brought a chill with it.

“No,” said Ned, turning around and placing a wet hand on mine. I looked down. It was covered in blood. “I need you to see this, I need you to believe me. Martha didn’t, she didn’t, and now I don’t know where she is, my God, I don’t know…”

There was a loud, solid thunk on the porch, followed by another. The house shook slightly. I kept my eyes trained on the outside but couldn’t see anything.

But I could smell it. And knowing my tracking skills, I should have smelled it before. It was blood and sweat and hay and horse and something unfathomable. Nero was here, a few feet away from us, hidden by the black night, halfway onto the porch.

A severe chill threaded down my back. My lungs refused to exhale.

I thought about throwing Ned’s hand off mine and quickly shutting the door, but everything happened so fast.

Nero snorted.

Ned gasped.

A flash of red eyes and the horse lunged forward towards the door, his long muzzle snapping at us like a wolf, all white, powerful teeth.

Uncle Pat dropped the candle in surprise and joined me at the door, trying to shut it on the horse who was trying wildly to fit inside the frame, his wide girth only allowing him to come in halfway.

Ned covered his eyes and shrank to the floor while June scooped up the candle before it managed to catch on the nearby rug. Pat and I kept trying to slam the door in Nero’s face, something that, naturally, only made him angrier.

The sides of the doorframe began to crack under the horse’s pressure, the wood splintering. Between my uncle’s grunts, Ned’s childlike wails, and June’s quiet repetition of the Lord’s Prayer, I kept focused on Nero’s head. It should have bothered me to be beating a horse in such a way, but this was no horse. Its eyes were blood red and surrounded by yellow discharge; its mouth was a foaming, angry mess, and its only intent was to do what Ned had said. To kill him. To kill all of us. No, this was no horse. It barely even smelled like one. My father would have known what it was.

Finally, Pat and I made one powerful heave in unison, and the result appeared to shatter the bones in Nero’s once handsome head. He screamed, a mix of anguish and frustration, and then retreated, almost taking the door with him as he went. We slammed it shut and locked it, as if that would prevent Nero from coming in again.

“June!” Pat yelled. “Go wake up Rose!”

“I’m already here,” was his daughter’s reply. I looked to see Rose standing beside June, staring at us in horror.

He nodded, both of us keeping our bodies against the door. “Good, now go get the piano and move it over here. We have to make sure he doesn’t try and get in again.”

June and Rose scampered over to the grand piano that rested in the corner of the room. Rose loved to practice on it after dinner in the evenings, and you could see the reluctance on her fair face as she and her mother leaned against the piano and slowly pushed it toward us until it was in place.

We stepped back and watched the door carefully, our breaths held in our mouths, our fingers twitching nervously. The piano was barely moveable to June and Rose, but they were both small women and Nero was a thousand pound animal. He could easily destroy it in a few seconds.

We waited for a good few minutes, all of our ears tuned carefully, none of us making a sound. Even Ned had stopped his blubbering and was listening in between sniffs. Rose made her way to him and placed her arm gently around his shoulders. I breathed in deeply through my nose and closed my eyes, concentrating on the animal. I couldn’t smell him anymore.

He was gone.

“I don’t think he’s coming back,” I said quietly, my voice sounding deep in the stillness.

“How do you know that?” Pat asked scornfully. “Don’t tell me it’s your half-breed mumbo jumbo.”

That was precisely why, but of course I didn’t say that. I learned a long time ago that talking back to Uncle Pat got you nowhere, and if it did, it was usually a slap across the face.

Pat looked down at Ned on the floor, who was now staring mindlessly at his bloody hands, and calmly said, “Now Ned, let’s start from the beginning.”

“Yes,” I said. “What on earth were you feeding that thing?”

*

The next day was hot enough to make my thick braid stick to the back of my neck, taking more than a few minutes for the dry desert air to whisk away the sweat. Even then, I knew that it would be one of the last hot days in September. Autumn was at our doorstep and winter was lurking in the darkness behind it.

After the excitement and horror of last night, I was unable to go back to sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I’d see the wretched face of Nero trying to eat me alive, all red eyes and snapping muzzle. I’d never seen a horse behave like that in all the world, and the more I wanted to dwell on it, the more I ended up scaring myself. I wasn’t one to scare easily, either.

Unfortunately, as I helped Avery shovel manure from the pig’s pen, he kept bringing it up.

“So tell me again, what did the fella look like?” Avery asked, leaning on the end of his shovel, the sun glinting off his golden hair.

“Who? The horse or Ned?” I asked.

He smirked, his dimples coming out, and wiped his hand across his brow. “The horse, you old biddy. I know what Ned looks like. I know that weasel face anywhere.”

I glared at him playfully. “I think I might take offense to that old biddy comment. If I’m old at eighteen, then you must be ancient.”

He continued his smirk, which was always handsome and never mean-spirited. It was one of the reasons why I liked Avery so much. For the last five years, ever since Avery started working at Uncle Pat’s as a ranch hand, he’d been making my daily chores more bearable. In fact, I actually looked forward to them every day, except for Sundays when we were dragged off to church and seated on opposite sides of the aisle.

He was also one of the few people I could actually call my friend, someone who didn’t care what I looked like or what blood was in my body. When you grow up being half Indian and half white, you figure out pretty soon that you’re not really welcome anywhere. Ever since my pa died, I’d spent a lot of time trying to figure out where exactly I fit in. With Avery, none of it mattered. I was just Eve Smith.

“Fine,” he said. “But if you won’t spare me the details again, at least tell me what happened to Martha.”

I shrugged and tucked a few loose strands of hair behind my ears. I honestly didn’t know what had happened to Ned’s wife, though I was quite certain she was alive and well somewhere. She’d gone missing during the Nero incident and once daylight broke over the valley, Ned and my uncle went out in search of her. I knew I could have been of good use with my tracking skills but my uncle would have never…humored me like that. Regardless, I could sense that she was fine, out there alone and scared, but likely to find her way home eventually.

Though I thought this to myself, I didn’t say anything to Avery. I knew he wouldn’t think any less of me with my “half-breed mumbo jumbo” as my uncle said, but I never wanted to press my luck with him. He liked me and I never wanted to lose that.

“I’m sure Martha will turn up,” I said, and resumed shoveling the smelly manure, keeping focused on the task. I could sense he was studying me the way he often did when I tried to keep the native side of me quiet, and I hoped my cheeks weren’t burning red. If they were, I could blame it on the sun, not the fact that lately my thoughts about Avery were becoming more and more inappropriate.

Eventually, I dared to look at him. But instead of looking at me like I had assumed he was, his gaze was directed over the fence at the road where Rose was walking home from school, dust clouds rising up behind her like brown cotton. I felt a sharp pang of envy in my chest, something I often felt when I thought about my cousin. It wasn’t that she was beautiful and polite, but that she was able to go to school every day and I never was. That was the reason Avery had to teach me secretly a few times a week. When my father disappeared and my mother became little more than a mute, Uncle Pat ruled my life and he saw I was unfit to attend school with the proper folk.

All I’d ever wanted to do was learn, to fill my mind with knowledge and wisdom, while Rose seemed to abhor everything about learning, except when it came to the piano.

And now Rose had something else that I hadn’t—the rapt attention of Avery. Oh, I’d be fooling myself if I hadn’t picked up on it before, but I’d never seen him be so obvious about it.

I cleared my throat and that pang grew deeper when he didn’t break his stare. Rose, as usual, was completely oblivious to the fact that we were out in her farm, toiling away under the hot sun, let alone that Avery was eyeing her like a smartly-wrapped gift on Christmas Day. Rose was never mean or cruel, but the way she usually tolerated me was to pretend I didn’t exist.

“Avery,” I said under my breath, my tone sharper than I would have liked.

Finally he looked at me, caught off-guard. He blinked a few times. “Pardon?”

“I said, I think that Martha will be fine.”

“Oh, good,” he said. If the sun’s glare hadn’t washed out his face just so, he might have been blushing.

I really wanted to say something, something that put him on the spot, just to witness his reaction. But besides being unladylike, I wouldn’t have been a very good friend. I took in a deep breath, rubbed at the knot that was forming in my shoulder, and decided to ignore it all. It was quite ridiculous, at any rate, that I would ever have a chance at Avery courting me. To just be friends with a half-breed was already scandalous enough.

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