~ Drifter ~
by D avaliantheart01@gmail.com

Disclaimer: These characters and this narrative are mine, so there is nothing to disclaim in this here story. Besides, if you are still reading my stuff, you already know the drill - you will need an open mind to read it. If you find something you think needs disclaiming, you are more than welcome to let me know. It won't change anything, but it may make you feel better. Ugliness will earn you a smack to the back of your head.

Thanks: To my truly awesome Beta Team - Phil, Mac and Jeanne. You guys ROCK!

Author's Notes: For the purposes of this story and to make it easier on both reader and writer of this tale - when the Natives speak perfect English, it is safe to assume that they are speaking in their mother tongue and there is a universal translator at work kindly putting it into a language more comfortable for reading and (in my case) writing. When the English is broken, they are speaking in the (to them) foreign white man's speech known as English.

The Storyteller's Cardinal Rule is in effect.


Green eyes gazed across the plains, scanning the emptiness around her intently. The wind had a definite chill in it and she pulled the thick skin closer around her slim body as she allowed her stare to pierce the darkness. A vision had brought her out here two days prior and her father, knowing the accuracy of her sight, let her go without protest. But Donoma Chepi knew that Takoda would be getting worried if she didn't return soon.

She heard before she saw, and green eyes turned in the direction of the clomping of a horse's hooves. When her eyes finally found what they sought, Donoma gasped. Then she mounted her Appaloosa and pushed the animal as fast as it would go. This wasn't what she had seen, but her vision would have to wait. From what she could discern in the darkness, this new unknown needed her help.

Donoma reached the rider's side, noting the copious amount of blood visible through the deerskin jacket, despite the fact that the rider was slumped over the big black's neck. A moan broke her out of her contemplation and spurred her to action. Then the rider shifted and Donoma got her first look at the face. She blinked in shocked recognition, and after a moment's hesitation, she slid from her pony, snatching her bag and patting the beast on the ass to send it towards home.

Donoma bit her lip and struggled onto the big black's back, positioning herself behind the wounded rider and grabbing the reins. Then she turned the horse's head and began their journey for home.

Chapter I

Litonya sat at the fire by Takoda, but her focus was far beyond the light cast around the circle. Instead it was with her daughter, alone in the darkness of the plain. She knew Donoma's brothers would have looked out for her had they been allowed to. But Donoma had insisted on privacy for her quest. Litonya smiled - Donoma Chepi may not have been born of her body, but she was absolutely born of their spirit. She wondered again, not for the first time, what Donoma was searching for.

For some time lately, Litonya had been aware of her daughter's growing discontent. It was nothing tangible - instead it was a feeling... an innate knowledge that Donoma was no longer satisfied with her life and her place in the tribe.

Litonya sat contemplating when things had started to change for Donoma - had it been when she had turned down Honovi's proposal to mate? Litonya had thought they would make strong children together, but Donoma had not even given it a moment's consideration and no brave had dared approach her since. Takoda had warned her not to concern herself over it. If Donoma Chepi was meant to walk a different path, then the spirits would guide her. They could only help their daughter follow the course that she was given.

A commotion at the outskirts of the camp drew everyone's attention and they were standing beside the fire watching Donoma's pony rush towards them... empty. Immediately, the warriors began to rally together, preparing to head out into the stark blackness beyond the camp to find one whose value was highly prized among them. Even if she scorned them as mates, no one wanted to see harm come to the one who had done so much for them.

Before any of them could move to the horses, Takoda motioned them back to their campfires. He had promised Donoma Chepi there would be no interference in her quest - but he had only promised because he himself had been gifted with a vision several days prior to hers. He knew what she was searching for... even if she did not yet. And he knew what she was searching for would come to her.

The warriors looked at him askance, as though not believing he was willing to leave his only daughter, a very gifted seer in her own right, out on the prairie alone. She was not trained in the warrior's ways and they saw her as vulnerable alone. Aside from her value as a mate, there were a number of warlike tribes who would consider her a great prize for her shamaness gifts if she was not destroyed by those who hated the Blue Coats and the white men they defended.

Then they heard the heavy, solo hoof beats of the big black and their attention returned to the darkness of the plains. Whoever was approaching not only knew their way but expected to be treated as a friend. Then she came into the first circle of firelight and the warriors rushed away from their campfires to help Donoma relieve herself and the very large horse of its burden.

The rider groaned as the shift in position once more caused bolts of agony to shoot all over the broken body. Mindful of the wounds they could see and especially those they couldn't, the rider was gently deposited onto the travois two of the men had carried over. Together they brought the litter to the shaman's fire and he motioned them into his tent before following them in.

Donoma moved to go in behind them when Litonya stopped her with a shake of her head. Donoma removed her mother's grip from her arm and looked her in the eye before speaking.

"Nahko'e, I must."

Litonya's dark eyes held her daughter's bright green ones, seeing so many emotions swirling in their depths. But in that glance she knew that it was need that drove Donoma to follow the rider and her father into their home. Litonya released Donoma and sat back down at her place at the fire, putting water on to heat and knowing Takoda would call for her when she was needed. Until that time she would wait and worry in silence with the rest of her people.


Donoma ducked her head only slightly to enter the already crowded space. Takoda turned to her as though expecting her presence and he motioned the warriors out with a nod of gratitude before turning his attention back to their unexpected guest. He sat back on his heels and gestured her closer.

"You know who this is, nahtona?"

"Yes, Neho'e. I know it has been several cycles since she left us, but I recognized Koko Kanti as soon as I saw her," Donoma stated softly as she pushed the hair away from Koko's bruised and dirty face before turning her attention to the bleeding form. She and Takoda worked swiftly together to remove the bloodstained jacket, then she ripped the buttons holding the rough shirt closed, gasping when she saw the damage someone had wrought to the strong, beautiful body before her.

Automatically, she reached for a bowl and cloth to clean around the wound before she started to repair the injury, not surprised to find her mother crouched beside her holding them ready but wondering how she knew. Donoma took them with a grateful nod, instantly turning her attention back to the broken woman lying so still under her ministrations.

Her parents watched for a long moment, realizing Donoma had retreated into her own world as she tended to Koko. Takoda jerked his head at Litonya and then followed her out of their home, leaving Donoma to complete her task in private.

Word had already spread about the suspected identity of their unexpected guest. So the rest of the tribe turned to them when they emerged and the chieftain approached the fire, knowing Takoda would not leave his until they knew how Koko fared. Takoda motioned him to a seat and Odahingum took the honored place the shaman offered him.

They didn't speak at first - there was no need. It was understood that Donoma would give them whatever answers she could when she was able. Gradually, though, they spoke of other things... simply to ease the tension that could be felt throughout the camp at the startling turn of events. Slowly, the others took the hint and quiet conversation returned to each fire though their attention was still partly concentrated on the shaman's home.

Finally, however, when it became clear that Donoma would not be leaving Koko's side in the near future, Odahingum cleared his throat and began to speak. "Takoda, why has she returned after all this time? I have heard the stories of her life among the white men - they say she is a cruel and dangerous woman."

Takoda puffed on his pipe for another minute, formulating his response carefully. When he did so, it was slowly and with deliberation, mindful of the fact that while, Odahingum was his friend, he was also the Chief and it was his responsibility to oversee the welfare of the entire tribe.

"She has not yet spoken, Odahingum, so I can only give you my thoughts on the matter. But I believe she came home to seek her mate. This is her home after all and she is well into the age when a warrior looks for companionship if not love."

Odahingum's eyebrows flew into his hairline. "A mate??? Here? Why? And why now??" the chief asked, not raising his voice, but managing to put a significant amount of incredulity into his whispered tone. Takoda looked at him steadily and Odahingum took a deep breath and shook his head. "I am sorry, my friend. I know you answered those questions already. I just...." he paused. "You're right... this is her home, but she has been a part of the white man's world for so long, I never thought she would return here."

"Nor did I... until recently. However, it is my firm belief that she is still true of heart and strong of spirit as she was when she left us. She should be welcomed among us as the missing warrior she has been. She has brought no shame to our clan, Odahingum."

"You are certain, Takoda? What of the things I have heard?"

"I know Koko Kanti is dangerous - she is a warrior born and bred. And I am sure she can be cruel and vicious if the need arises. But not once in the years she spent here did she ever turn that fierceness against us - though there was ample opportunity for her to do so. How many times did she defeat our sons in mock-battles and yet leave their dignity intact?"

Odahingum laughed. "Too many - but at least she left them their dignity... after the first time."

Takoda snorted. "At least they learned better than to challenge her... after the first time." He paused, letting silence fall as he puffed on his pipe once more. Finally he felt compelled to finish his defense of the child they had taken into their tribe so many cycles before. "She deserves the opportunity to speak for herself, my friend. I believe it is in our best interests to listen before we pass judgment. The spirits have returned her to us at this time for a reason."

"You have seen?"

"Nothing definitive, but enough."

Odahingum nodded. "Very well. I trust you, Takoda; you have never had anything but the good of the clan in your heart." The chief turned when Litonya offered him a cup of tea, accepting it with a gracious nod of his head even though her eyes never met his as was the custom with their people. She offered the same to her mate and Takoda brushed his fingers over hers in thanks, smiling when Litonya's deep brown eyes met his with a hint of a smile.

"Anything?" he questioned her softly.

She shook her dark head. "No... Donoma is still working. I think she will remain with her even when her task is complete," holding Takoda's eyes firmly before stepping back. "She will be in need of more fresh water. She will not let me do anything else."

"As it should be, wife. This is her quest... this will give her the answers she has long sought."

"Let us hope it brings her a measure of peace."

"This is why you cannot see clearly?" Odahingum asked Takoda once Litonya had crossed back into the dwelling where Donoma continued to work on Koko. "Because it is Donoma Chepi's quest?"

Takoda nodded. "I know some things... have seen the possibilities of others. I can offer guidance, but this pursuit is hers alone to take." He stopped speaking, unwilling to say anything more and though he still had a number of questions, Odahingum fell silent. He respected Takoda's place in the tribe and knew if there was more he needed to know, Takoda would tell him. Until then Donoma was entitled to some privacy on the matter although Odahingum suspected whatever was coming would not stay private for very long. There was something about the two of them together - there always had been... since the day the half-breed and her white mother had been taken into the tribe.

His mind wandered back to the day fifteen cycles before.... what he himself had seen and what Takoda had shared with him later....


It had been blazing hot... one of the hottest summers that even the oldest of their elders could recall. Heat rose from the parched land in waves, and the People were traveling behind the slowly moving herd, neither unwilling to exert themselves much. Without warning, a scream brought the caravan to a halt. Takoda, ever patient and recognizing the unusual sound, rode back to Litonya to find their five year old blonde fury clutching at his wife's midriff while tears ran down her face.

He wondered what had happened to bring such intense emotion out into the open. They had discovered her as a baby abandoned in the remains of a decimated wagon train. Though she had lived with them almost her entire short life, Donoma Chepi had always been a quiet, reserved child with everyone who came into contact with her. Only by accident had Takoda just recently realized she possessed much the same gift he did for seeing. Not questioning the Spirit's wisdom in gifting one so different and so young, he lifted Donoma into the saddle in front of him, sensing she had seen something that frightened her.

Takoda cocked an eyebrow at Litonya, but she shrugged and shook her head, not knowing what had caused their young daughter wail like a banshee. Takoda kissed the top of her head and Donoma burrowed deeper into him, seeking comfort. He glanced up when the sound of hoof beats came closer, noting Odahingum making his way back to them with concern etched on his face.


He looked at his chieftain and friend with honest confusion. "I do not know, Odahingum." But before he could add anything else, Donoma spoke softly.

"Help them."

Two sets of dark brows rose into equally dark hairlines, wondering what the normally reticent child was talking about. She sat up straight, allowing her bright green eyes to meet Takoda's before imperiously pointing north of where the procession was currently stopped. "Help them, Neho'e."

"Who, Donoma? Can you show me where to look?"

She returned his gaze steadily and nodded. Takoda waited until she tucked her head under his chin again before moving his gaze back to Odahingum. The chief returned his look for a long moment before nodding and calling for several scouts to accompany them. Within moments, a small troupe was ready to move out. Odahingum gave them their orders and they set off towards the north while the rest of the People continued east towards water. Takoda and the scouts would join them as soon as they had investigated whatever it was Donoma clearly expected them to find.

Though it seemed that the sun was unmoving in the sky, almost thirty minutes passed before Donoma spoke again, motioning towards a small outcropping just ahead. Just before they reached it, a shot rang out and they pulled to an abrupt halt. Donoma tugged on the reins, trying to encourage the horse to move forward again, but Takoda held them firmly. Finally, sighing loudly, she turned back to him.

"Neho'e... help them."

He glanced down at her before giving hand signals to the scouts, waiting for them to spread out before dismounting and catching Donoma when she leaped into his arms with utmost confidence. Takoda set Donoma on her feet and she took off running towards the outcropping; Takoda sprinted after her, catching her in two long strides and sweeping the child into his arms.


"We will help them, Donoma. But we must tread carefully."

"They are afraid, Neho'e."

"Then we must be extra careful not to scare them anymore. No more running, Donoma Chepi." The blonde head nodded her agreement, knowing her full name meant nothing but trouble if she argued. Takoda set her down again and held out his hand; Donoma took it and they slowly approached the rock ledge, just able to make out two figures sheltering beneath a scant bit of shade.

"Close enough," a rough young voice called out. "Who are you? What do you want?"

"My name is Takoda...." the shaman started to speak, but was cut off by the voice again.

"Who's the baby?"

Donoma stamped her foot. "I am not a baby! I am Donoma Chepi, nahtona of Takoda and Litonya."

A second voice answered this time - older and with a hint of a smile in it. "Why are you here, Donoma Chepi, nahtona of Takoda and Litonya?"

"We came to help," Donoma replied bravely.

There was silence then... a long pause in which Takoda and Donoma stood quietly waiting. The shaman kept his focus on the crags while his daughter closed her eyes and moved her lips silently. Suddenly, the older voice spoke again.

"We thank you for your offer as I am injured, so your help would be most gratefully received."

Takoda frowned slightly. The older voice - definitely a female - was using a very formal form of speech as though she was not speaking her native tongue. Even accounting for the differences between his tribe and the others in the area, it was still stilted... almost ceremonial in intonation and cadence. It made him wonder. However, his questions did not keep him from signaling the scouts to approach from all angles, knowing he and Donoma made the most inviting target if this was indeed a ruse perpetuated by one of the more warlike clans. Donoma's first family had been destroyed by one; he didn't want her to lose a second, nor did he want to lose her to them.

The scouts reached the plateau and signed the situation - only then did he and Donoma approach. And what they found was surprising in the least.


Odahingum came back to the present when he heard Litonya return to the fire. He glanced at Takoda, but the shaman merely shook his head. The chieftain sighed silently. It was going to be a long night.

Chapter II

Donoma looked down into pale features, gently checking each and every wound that had been inflicted on this stranger she had once called 'best friend'. She stripped the warrior of her white man's clothing and cleaned away the massive amounts of blood that had dried on her skin, glad to note that it had slowed to merely a trickle. Donoma watched her steady breathing for a long moment and wondered what could have brought Koko back to them after all this time.

She looked up when her mother exchanged dirty water for fresh, nodding her thanks and continuing her cleaning efforts. Donoma realized she would need to sew a bit of flesh as well as wrap the damage with poultices and she met Litonya's eyes. Litonya ran her gaze over Koko's exposed body, understanding Donoma's unspoken request and heading back to the fire to fetch more hot water and the kit they kept ready for battle injuries.

Donoma accepted both with a nod of thanks and a small smile, then immediately turned her attention back to the woman who was in need of her care. Her mind wandered back to the first time they had met - when she had been a child of five... and Koko had been an angry twelve year old warrior wannabe.


Donoma had jumped into Takoda's arms, knowing with the utmost faith that children possess in their parents that he would catch her. The minute he'd set her on her feet, she sprinted towards the outcropping, knowing for certain that someone there needed help. She'd protested when Takoda had scooped her into his arms and explained the need for caution. Donoma had been reassured that he understood they needed help and that was enough.

She hadn't appreciated being called a baby, but the smiling voice had made her nose crinkle up in response. She watched as the scouts slowly approached the ledge. After a moment, they signaled Takoda and he and Donoma made their way to the outcropping. He cleared his throat and spoke again.

"May we join you?"

Two sets of bright blue eyes met his and though it took Takoda by surprise, his expression did not change. Donoma, however, was fascinated and immediately walked to the girl. "Wow!" she exclaimed softly, causing an unexpected blush to crawl up the younger face and a smile to break out on the older one. "You are very pretty." That got an outright laugh from the older woman and a growl from the girl, causing Donoma to take a step back.

The woman wrapped an arm around the small child and glared at her daughter. "Koko Kanti! That is enough! She is just a baby - do you remember what your father taught you?"

"Protect the little ones," the older girl grumbled. Koko sighed loudly then stepped closer to Donoma, who reflexively curled closer into the woman's body. Blue eyes met green; Koko could see the hurt in the child's eyes and mentally lashed herself for carelessly hurting one so young who had brought help, however unwittingly. It wasn't the child's fault Koko and her mother suddenly found themselves as outcasts. She knelt.

"I am sorry, ka'eskone." She reached out a hand towards Donoma and waited, letting the younger child grasp her much larger one. "Friends?"

Donoma hesitated a long moment, looking Koko in the eye to gauge her sincerity. Then she walked out of the older woman's embrace and right into Koko's personal space. She grasped Koko's face between her two small hands and leaned their foreheads together so their eyes crossed. "Yes," Donoma interred softly. "Friends."


"Friends," Donoma whispered out loud to the woman who was lying so still now under her ministrations. "We always were a mismatched pair, weren't we, Nutta? I have missed you, Koko - what brought you back to me again?"

Koko Kanti didn't answer; her breathing was shallow but steady and Donoma bit her lip as her hands continued to dress the injuries she found while her mind wandered back to the first meeting between them.


"Good," Takoda smiled at the older woman, swallowing his amazement at what had just happened between his reserved daughter and the fierce girl-woman she had just met. He would share Donoma's unprecedented behavior with Litonya later, but first, they needed to get back to the tribe. "Now how can we help?" He looked around for the first time, noting the bare supplies they had and the woman's damaged leg. Takoda's eyes widened as he realized what must have happened. But he waited for her to answer.

"If you could render a bit of assistance," motioning to her leg, "I think we will be fine."

"No," Takoda said firmly. Two sets of blue and one set of green eyes turned to stare at him in astonishment. Donoma pulled away from Koko and stood in front of him with her hands on her hips. He briefly wondered where she'd developed the stance before he knelt to be at her level; it wasn't common to the People. "You led us here and you asked me to help, ka'eskone. Well... I am helping. I am going to take them home with us. We can help them better if there are many hands and they can help us as well. They will be part of our family," he added, seeing the younger female's eyes glitter at the thought of accepting help.

"No," Koko growled. "No family. Help Nahko'e, then leave us. I will care for her."

Donoma turned. "Koko," the child said, crossing to take the older girl's hand in hers. "Come as friends. Neho'e will find a place for you. You can stay with us until you are ready to go home."

"We have no home," Koko spat, just stopping herself from jerking her hand away from Donoma's.

Donoma frowned gravely. "Why?" trying to understand politics far beyond her five-year-old mind. Then before anyone could answer her query she shrugged and tugged Koko's hand. "If you have no home, then you must come with us. I need a sister to play with. I only have brothers and they do not let me play with them - they say I am too little for their boy games."

"You are welcome to come with us to summer camp until your Nahko'e recovers from her injury. If you want to leave us after that, we will not stop you. And if you decide you would like to stay, we will welcome you as productive members of our tribe."

"I am a warrior," the girl proclaimed proudly. "I would expect to be treated as such. I do not do woman's work, nor will I be wed to a man unless I choose to do so."

Takoda's eyebrows went into his hairline. "I give you my word as the clan's shaman - if you pass the tests of a warrior, you will be treated as a warrior. But know this, Koko... there will be many who would see you fail your claim."

"Then they will need to defeat me in battle. And I have not yet been defeated by my peers." Her eyes were aggressive and her stance was proud.

"Then you would be most welcome among us indeed, young warrior." Takoda paused and spread his hands. "However, all this talk is doing nothing to relieve your mother of her pain. What do you say to my proposal?" tacitly acknowledging Koko's defacto status leadership role at the moment.

Koko looked at her mother, but the blue eyes told her nothing, placing the decision squarely on Koko's shoulders as the head of the household. Koko turned her gaze back to Takoda, measuring his worth as a real warrior would. Then she turned to Donoma who had watched the entire proceeding with intent, interested eyes. Koko walked over to where she stood and knelt down to Donoma's level, putting them eye to eye again. "What say you, Donoma Chepi, daughter of Takoda and Litonya?"

"Will you still play with me when you are a warrior?"

Koko looked into guileless green eyes. "Yes," she vowed unblinkingly. "And you can be my advisor. Great warriors always have advisors they trust. And if you found us, then you must be a great seer. I would be very fortunate to have you as my advisor."

Donoma's smile lit up her whole face and her eyes sparkled with happiness. "Really?"

"Really," Koko confirmed.

"Then you have to come live with us. I do not think my Neho'e will let me leave home yet to go with you no matter how strong a warrior you are."

"It is settled then," Koko stated firmly, hiding her smile at Donoma's whispered confidence and rising to her feet once more to face Takoda. "We will go to summer camp once Nahko'e's leg is cared for."

"And then?"

"And then I will prove myself a warrior to my new clan and my Nahko'e will teach the language of the white man to those who desire to learn."

Takoda turned to the woman. "You would do this?"

"Yes, certainly," she replied without hesitation. "It is my mother tongue after all, and if it would benefit my new clan...." She trailed off and grimaced as a wave of pain washed through her body. Takoda noticed and immediately took charge of the situation, feeling things had worked out satisfactorily enough for the time being for him to do so. With an economy of motion, he soon had the older woman's leg taken care of and loaded onto a makeshift travois.

The horse that pulled the litter he gave Koko to ride alone and he was pleased to see that she had not boasted of her skill - she had stated plain fact. The scout who had given up his horse rode double with another and Donoma was once more seated in front of Takoda. Then he gave a signal and the little band moved out, headed back to where the main tribe would have set up an early camp to await their return. Takoda imagined this would be the talk around the campfires for quite some time to come.


Takoda came back from his memories with a start when his eldest son stood beside him, waiting for an invitation to join him and Odahingum at Takoda's fire. With a grunt and short, choppy gesture, Takoda bade Honaw to join them in their task. This son, more than any other member of the tribe, had questioned Koko's right as a warrior, but he had been the first to embrace her when she had proven her worth. Honaw might be hard-headed and stubborn, but he was not stupid and he was also incredibly fair. And he and Koko had formed a fast friendship - depending on one another as blood brothers in battle. Only Donoma had been more upset at Koko's abrupt departure five cycles previously, but for entirely different reasons. Honaw believed he understood Koko's motivation; all Donoma knew was that her best friend had simply left one day and never returned.

He lit his pipe and let his mind wander back to the day they had first arrived in camp. What a stir that had caused.


Odahingum met Takoda's troupe with a welcome party of his own. His eyebrows rose into his hairline as he realized that Donoma was obviously far more gifted in the ways of the Spirits than they had previously thought. Then he turned his attention to their guests.

Koko sat straight on the back of her horse, meeting his eyes like a warrior would. The woman resting in the litter behind her was obviously related and Odahingum wondered what had brought them to his tribe. He turned to Takoda for answers.

"Odahingum, this is Koko Kanti, warrior-in-training and her mother...." Takoda broke off as he realized her didn't know the white woman's name. He looked at Koko.

"My mother is called Rae'l." Takoda nodded his thanks.

"Odahingum, I believe we should get our new friends settled. Tomorrow will be soon enough to talk."

The chieftain nodded his agreement. "Very well." He motioned to those who had ridden out with him to take custody of the travois and move it into the camp and some welcome shade. Koko let them, knowing her mother needed care beyond what she could provide, but she kept a very close eye on where they went. She knew what her responsibilities were and she would not fail the promise she had made to her father when he had agreed to teach her the warrior ways. "Do we have a place to put them?" Odahingum continued speaking to Takoda.

"Litonya and I will make room for them in our home tonight. Once Koko Kanti has proven herself the warrior she claims to be, we can begin constructing them a place of their own."

Honaw, Takoda's eldest son, had chosen to accompany the chief's party out of the encampment to greet his father. He was of an age about the same as Koko, slightly older - just on the cusp of adulthood and ready to prove himself a warrior. At Takoda's words, he laughed.

"Her... a warrior? She could not defeat the weakest of us in battle."

"Then as the weakest, I suppose you are volunteering to be defeated first?" she sneered at him. The boy's face turned crimson with rage.

"I am not weak!" he snarled. Honaw jumped from his horse and drew the bone blade he carried. "Defend yourself."

Donoma sat quietly on her father's knee watching the proceedings with interest. She had never met anyone like Koko before. Even though Donoma knew she was a little different than the rest of the children in the tribe because of her green eyes and red-gold hair, she was still treated as a little girl would be. Koko, however, was different than anything she had ever known. No one had ever challenged Honaw before - not even the chief's firstborn son Keezheekoni. Honaw was the acknowledged champion among the warriors his age, having proved himself in every arena.

Koko slid from her horse easily, managing to put a negligent swagger into the action. She sauntered up to Honaw and looked him over insolently, her disdain of him clear in her expression and her lack of a weapon. "Well," she motioned to him lazily. "Are you going to make me wait all day for you to gather your courage?"

Furious, Honaw swung his blade at her, only to discover she was not where he had expected her to be. He turned to find her behind him, waiting for him to make his move again. He growled and swiped again, only to find his blade hitting air a second time. This time, though, she didn't give him another chance to strike. Instead, she went on the offensive, knocking the bone knife from his hand and bringing her foot up into his midsection, making him double over gasping for breath.

Koko deliberately turned her back and walked away, interested in seeing if her father would continue to be right about the male warriors she would face. She heard him shift before Donoma screamed out a warning and Koko kicked out again - this time knocking him flat on his back. Honaw didn't have time to catch the breath she had again driven from his lungs before Koko had straddled him and was holding a steel-bladed knife at his throat.

"Do you yield?" calling on his honor to end the fight and claim her victory. He would lose face if he did not yield or if he attacked her from behind again. She had beaten him fairly in front of witnesses.

"I yield," Honaw agreed sullenly. Koko looked into his eyes to gauge his sincerity, having learned at a young age how to tell if she was being lied to. She nodded and rose to stand over him, then extended a hand out to him. Honaw looked at it and her for a long moment. He knew his next actions would determine a number of things in both of their futures. Accepting her hand meant he accepted her as a warrior and an equal; rejecting it meant she would do battle with each of the warriors-in-training and even her victories would matter little if he did not welcome her.

Honaw looked at his father then the chieftain, but neither of them showed any indication of which choice he should make. After a long moment, Honaw took Koko's hand and stood, clapping her on the back in celebration of her victory. She smiled and he smiled back. He had no way of knowing that his simple act of accepting Koko as a warrior into their tribe would change the course of several lives, including his own.

As soon as it was clear that the fight was over and Koko had won, Donoma squirmed to get down and Takoda released her. She ran to Koko, standing in front of her defensively and turning to face Honaw. "Hestatanemo, she is my sister now and I am her warrior advisor. You cannot treat her badly."

Honaw squatted down to Donoma's level. "She defeated me in fair combat, ka'eskone. We will be blood brothers and will protect one another in battle. I promise I will not treat her badly."

Donoma leaned forward and wrapped her arms around his neck. "I am glad she did not hurt you, Honaw," she whispered. "And I am glad you did not hurt her. I do not think she has had many friends in her life."

"Well, she has us now, and soon she will have a whole tribe of friends - though we may have to work to convince Keezheekoni that she is a worthy warrior."

Donoma frowned and crossed her arms over her chest. She knew from listening to her brothers' talk that Keezheekoni always took more convincing than just someone saying so. He always wanted proof he could see for himself. His caution wasn't a bad thing, but it didn't necessarily make him a good leader either. And it did make him difficult to deal with sometimes.

Honaw appreciated her frustration. Donoma may have only been five years old, but she understood much about the world around her. He and their brothers would not let her play with them to protect her - it was the only thing their father had charged them with from the day she had been found and brought into their home. But still she had seen and heard much in her short tenure on Earth so far... though it would be a while yet before anyone knew how much. He tousled her hair, then laughed when she scowled fiercely at him before turning to Koko holding out her hand.

"Let's go find your Nahko'e, Koko. My Nahko'e should be with her and I want you to meet her. She will like you."

The rest watched them walk away, marveling at the difference that Koko had made in Donoma's demeanor in less than the span of a day. No one knew enough about Koko to realize what a significant change Donoma had already wrought in her... but they would eventually. Odahingum looked at Honaw then at Takoda. "You realize this will turn our world upside down... at least for a little while. Even with her defeat of you, the rest may not accept her so willingly into the clan as a warrior."

"Then I will guard her back as I promised Donoma I would. As far as I am concerned, Koko has earned her place. If I have to tell of my defeat, then I will do so." Honaw spoke as a warrior and not a child and held the chief's eyes. "I gave my word."

Odahingum nodded in satisfaction. It was not often that the youngest of the warriors took such an oath, but it was expected that they honor such a covenant even as the oldest of the elders would. And for Honaw to do so for someone he had just met *and* been defeated by was extraordinary. He wondered what Honaw had seen that he had given his pledge to his sister so easily.

Maybe one day the boy would share. Until then, they had new members to welcome into the tribe.


Litonya watched her daughter from the doorway, her memories of another time and place still sharp and clear as they had been when they happened. Rachel's and Koko's coming to their tribe all those years ago had changed so much for all of them, though none of them could have foreseen how much at the time. Koko's skin was clean and Donoma had flushed all the dirt and poison she could extract from the wounds. She reached for the smallest bone needle and some gut sinew. A glance at Koko's face told her the woman was still unconscious. Donoma took a deep breath and started to close the ugliest of the injuries, remembering her mother had done the same with Rae'l when they had first joined the camp.

Litonya watched in silence and let her mind take her back to the day they had arrived in camp.

Chapter III

Litonya motioned the litter bearers to her home, knowing Takoda expected her to begin cleaning up and caring for the stranger he and Donoma had found until he arrived to take over. The young men set the travois down gently and waited for Litonya to dismiss them. She turned to see what she would need, only just restraining the gasp that wanted to escape when she realized her patient was a woman.

With a few terse words, Litonya scattered the scouts, sending them out of her home for clean hot water, bandages and her kit. She knelt at the woman's side, smoothing back unruly curls that had worked loose from the braid the auburn hair had been fastened in. Litonya looked her over carefully, then began to remove her clothing so she could see the parts of the woman's body that were covered. A hand on her wrist halted her movements and dark brown eyes met bright blue steadily.

"It is all right," she soothed gently. "I am not going to hurt you. I need to see what damage has been done so I can start the healing process."

The injured woman slowly nodded her agreement and released Litonya's hand. Litonya smiled and patted her hand comfortingly before resuming her work. She eased the dress over the other woman's head, wincing when she saw the cuts and bruising over her body. A call from outside the door caused her to pull a light blanket up before biding the voice to enter.

The scouts came in quickly, placing their burdens beside her and escaping. Litonya turned her attention back to the woman, looking her in the eye as she squeezed excess water from the cloth she held. "What are you called?"

"My name is Rachel," the woman said softly, "but I am called Rae'l by most. It is easier to say." She gave Litonya a ghost of a smile, pleased when it was returned without hesitation.

"What happened to you, Rae'l? Who did this to you?"

Rachel sighed. She supposed these people would need to know the barest essentials of her story - they deserved that much for their kindness to her now... even if it meant they threw them back out into the elements. But somehow, she didn't think that would happen - not if the little girl Donoma was any indication of how they felt.

"My husband's people," she answered shortly. "We were removed from the tribe after his death."

Litonya's eyes widened. She knew of tribes that purged themselves of perceived impurities to their tribe and bloodlines, but she had never had any personal experience with it until now. Then she realized what Rachel had said. "Who is we?" carefully cleaning the briars from the scrapes. She wondered if they had been abused before being cast out or if the damage had been done because of the circumstances they had suffered through.

"My daughter and myself," Rachel was answering her question. "It is complicated, and it is my daughter's story to share as the acting head of the household."

Litonya blinked, understanding far more than Rachel was willing to say. Only one circumstance would make a girl child the head of the family. And if that was the case, Litonya would hear the story when the girl shared it with Takoda and Odahingum.

"Very well, Rae'l... I understand. Can you tell me if these marks came from your expulsion from your village or from your travels here?"

"From our travels - I am not accustomed to such activity and Koko is still growing into her skills. I am afraid sometimes my clumsiness is faster than her reflexes," smiling again at this woman whom she felt could be a friend to her if they were allowed to stay.

Litonya smiled back. She hoped the elders would consent to this woman and her child remaining as part of the tribe. Despite her obvious 'white man' heritage, Rachel had the same heart and courage that the People possessed. Litonya had the distinct impression they would make a welcome addition to the clan.

"I think it is that way for all of us," Litonya assured Rachel as she smeared poultice across the myriad of cuts and bruises on her body before wrapping them in clean bandages. "It is part of growing up and getting older."

"Well, I cannot comment on the growing up part - it has been a long time since I did that, but I would like to say that getting older is not always much fun." She shifted then winced when she twisted her leg the wrong way. "This would be one of those times actually," she admitted with a weak laugh.

Litonya nodded slowly. "I think it is broken, my friend," laying a comforting hand on Rachel's shoulder, appearing not to notice the injured woman's startled gratitude. "It is going to take more than me to fix it." A noise from outside drew their attention and Litonya's face creased into a huge smile. "However, if my ears do not deceive me, my daughter has brought your daughter home, and that means someone who can help me with your leg should not be far behind."

"Nahko'e," called out a five-year-old voice. "Can we come in?"

Litonya looked at Rachel who pulled the light blanket up then nodded in her direction. "Come in, ka'eskone, and bring your new friend."

Donoma pulled the heavy flap aside only to find it taken out of her hands by her new best friend. She smiled back at Koko who smiled in return and motioned her forward before following her in. Donoma nodded to her mother before kneeling at Rachel's side and patting her hair.

"How are you, Rae'l?"

Rachel blinked, then realized Koko must have told the child her name at some point. She smiled, watching Donoma's nose crinkle up when she smiled in return. "I am better, thank you." Donoma turned to look at Koko who still hesitated in the doorway.

"See, Koko? I told you my Nahko'e would make yours all better."

Rachel held out a hand and beckoned her daughter forward; Koko stepped away from door and took Rachel's hand in her larger one as she knelt beside her. "I will be all right, Koko Kanti. You did a good job taking care of me."


"No buts, daughter. We will be safe here for however long we are allowed to stay."

"We can make our home with these People, Nahko'e, if you so wish it. The offer has been made and already I have taken the first steps to prove myself a worthy warrior to the elders."

"She is my new big sister, Nahko'e," Donoma explained seriously to a surprised Litonya. "And I am her warrior advisor."

"Oh really?" Litonya inquired straight-faced, though there was a distinct twinkle in her eye. "How did this happen?"

"Yes... we made an agreement."

"Well then... we cannot break such a sacred bond. So what do you say to helping me prepare pallets for your hestatanemos to sleep outside tonight. That way, there will be room for your new sister and her mother to share with us until we can construct them a home of their own."

"Do we have to?"

Litonya looked at Donoma with a frown. "You do not want to share lodging with Koko?"

"I do not want them to live somewhere else," Donoma stated plainly. "Can we not move the boys out and keep Koko?"

Koko flushed red and Rachel wisely bit her lips to keep from laughing at the child's uninhibited spirit. Litonya was not quite so controlling of her own reaction, though she managed to temper her astonishment over Donoma's reaction to the newcomers. She wondered if it was because they were different as Donoma was or if it was something she felt about them beyond that.

Shaking her head, Litonya took Donoma's hand. "No, ka'eskone. If Koko Kanti is to be a warrior in her own right, she needs her own home and fire as the rest of the warriors possess. The same will happen to your brothers as they become of an age to marry and have homes of their own. The difference for Koko is that she already has the responsibilities of a household with her mother being a widow."

Donoma shrugged. "I guess... but I would still rather keep her."

"I will come over every day that I can, ka'eskone. I promised you."

"And besides," Litonya added. "She won't be leaving for at least a few days, Donoma. We have to build them a shelter first."

Footsteps approached the home and then Takoda swept aside the door and stepped into the confined space. Koko stood and extended a hand to Donoma who accepted it with alacrity. "Come, ka'eskone. We will go play and leave the adults to their work."

Takoda gave her a small nod of thanks, knowing Koko would take Donoma far enough away from their home that she would be unable to her Rachel's cries of pain as they dealt with her leg. Already the older girl was showing signs of strength and leadership that some adults had yet to master. He turned his attention back to the injured woman, moving the blanket out-of-the-way just enough to study the damage she had wrought to her leg.

Donoma held on tightly to Koko's hand, unwilling to let the older girl go in case she changed her mind once they reached the outlying fields where most of the children were gathered playing games. Donoma was not a stupid child and she knew Koko would probably prefer to practice warrior things with the boys her age. But for just a little while, she hoped Koko would keep her promise. Maybe for a little while, she wouldn't be so lonely.


Donoma came back from her musings to find her work completed and Koko still unresponsive. She sat back on her heels and just looked at the woman who for all her growing up years had been her whole world and her very best friend.

She smoothed the dark hair away from the planed features, wondering what had happened and how Koko had managed to let her guard down so far that she could have been hurt so badly. Donoma clearly recalled the thrashing Koko had applied to Honaw the first time they'd met and it brought a tiny smile to her face. Though Honaw had always been her favorite brother, he had become less cocky that day and more fun for the five-year-old she had been to be around and she appreciated that.

Donoma also remembered what had happened the first time Koko had been introduced to the rest of the warriors in training. It still made her mad to think about it.


They reached the field and Koko kept moving, knowing if she stopped the boys would all want to test her. It was always the same - you could never just defeat one. No, all of them had to be humiliated before they would accept you. And even then, if you didn't make friends with the key players, you would still be an outcast. That, however, she felt she had taken care of with Honaw, but one never knew until it came right down to it.

Koko felt how tightly Donoma was holding onto her hand, and she squeezed back gently to assure the child she had no intention of letting go. Donoma was an anomaly as far as Koko was concerned. She had never had someone - even her mother and father - who accepted her totally without question or reservation and without expectations. Koko knew in her heart of hearts that the only reason Donoma was so totally accepting was because she was only five and Koko fully understood that acceptance would change into mere tolerance if she was lucky as Donoma grew older and more worldly wise. But for now Koko was determined to enjoy the phenomenon that being accepted for oneself was.

The noise got louder as they got closer to where the boys were and Koko was resolved to ignore it. She had made a promise to her new friend and she had no intention of breaking it.

"I do not like them," Donoma suddenly announced as they moved away from the boys. "They never let me play with them."

"What about the girls? Do they not let you play either?"

"Not really. I am too little."

"And too different?" Koko asked kindly. Donoma nodded.

"How did you know?"

"Because I am too different as well. We can just be different together." Koko smiled and her eyes twinkled. Donoma stared at her closely and she frowned in response. "What?" she growled.

"I like your eyes. They are like mine, but different. I think they are pretty."

Koko couldn't stop the blush and wondered where the kid got the uncanny ability to do that to her. She shook her head. "I think yours are pretty too... like the color of spring grass. Now," changing the subject before Donoma could comment any further, "do you want to play hide and seek?"

Donoma's brow furrowed. "Okay... how do you play?"

Koko blinked. She thought all children knew how to play hide and seek. Usually the older ones taught the younger just so they would be able to get away from them for hours on end. She wondered if there was a reason beyond her age and relatively small size that Donoma had been so sheltered. "Um... what do you usually play when you come out here?"

"I am not allowed to be away from camp by myself and Nahko'e cannot come with me very often. When she does, we look at the flowers or chase butterflies; if we are near water she will sometimes take me swimming or fishing. We collect berries when we find them."

"What do you want to do then?"

"I would like to learn how to climb a tree, but since we do not have any nearby... can we chase the butterflies? I have never been able to catch one and I would like to see one up close. I think you might be fast enough to catch one."

Koko grinned and felt her chest swell. She wondered what she had done to merit such faith from a virtual stranger, then determined not to let her new friend down.

"Well," she admitted, "I have never caught a butterfly, but I am certainly willing to give it a try. Come... let's go see if we can find one."

Donoma led the way and Koko carefully followed, always keeping the younger girl in her sights. For a while they simply ran, enjoying the sun and the wind and the tickle of the tall grass. Then Donoma stopped, realizing they had gone far enough away from the camp that all she heard was the silence.

"We have to go back," she said sadly. "I am not supposed to wander too far away by myself."

"But you are not by yourself, ka'eskone. You are with me... and I am a warrior. I will protect you and get you home safely to your parents."

A snort interrupted them and Koko wasn't surprised to find that some of the older boys had followed them. She sighed. She really didn't want to do this again today... especially not in front of Donoma. She liked the kid despite their age difference and she could tell Donoma liked her too. Koko didn't want to lose that because of a bunch of hormonally challenged adolescent boys. But she wasn't going to let them bully her either.

"Who is going to protect you?" the biggest of them asked, though Koko noticed he was not as large as Honaw. "You may think you're a warrior, but I say you need to prove it. And I do not think you can."

Koko groaned. She had been hoping for a bit of a reprieve here in this new place, but obviously that wasn't going to happen. "Are you challenging me, little man?" knowing the boy wouldn't let the jibe pass unnoticed. Koko figured if she had to establish dominance here, she might as well get it over with at the beginning. She looked at Donoma - she had finally found a friend... she didn't want to lose her.

Keezheekoni was furious. No one spoke to him that way - not even Honaw, and Honaw was their acknowledged champion. "How dare you! Prepare to defend yourself!" But Koko merely shook her head.

"Not here and not now," she proclaimed with a significant glance in Donoma's direction. He nodded, knowing well that neither his father the chieftain nor the shaman Takoda would tolerate such behavior in front of the small child. She would never understand the many mandates that were in place for her benefit alone. "If you want to challenge me, you will do so in camp in front of witnesses."

"Very well... be ready then, for I will issue my challenge as soon as you arrive."

Koko smiled. "I will be waiting for you, little man." Then she took Donoma's hand in hers and together they headed back towards the encampment. The boys watched them out of sight, then he and Honaw walked away from the others to speak privately.

"You should not have challenged her, Keez. She will defeat you."

"Have you no faith in me, my friend?"

Honaw shook his head. "Not this time, Keezheekoni. She defeated me with ease - and I can defeat you. What do you think she will do?" A beat. "And I must stand with her in this fight... I have given my word to her and to Donoma in front of our fathers."

Keezheekoni's eyes blazed hot with rage for a long moment before the fire petered out. "If she defeats me as easily as you say she will, we will accept her and make her one of us. Our enemies will never expect such cunning." He sighed. "Come, let me get this humiliation over with quickly. I do not think I will live this down for many moons."

Honaw grinned. "I think it depends on how you behave after the defeat, Keez. If you do embrace her, the rest of the warrior caste will be forced to reckon with her as well. I think she could teach us much."

Keezheekoni stopped walking. "Honaw, regardless of her ability to defeat me or even you, Odahingum will not put her in charge of training. She is not yet a warrior and has much to learn herself."

"Perhaps," the other boy agreed, "but that does not stop us from asking her to teach us." Keezheekoni looked at him skeptically and Honaw patted him on the back. "Trust me, my brother. You will understand much better shortly."

Keezheekoni groaned and he led the group of grinning boys back toward the encampment. They were looking forward to the upcoming altercation. Keezheekoni simply felt dread.


Keezheekoni approached Takoda's campfire and Odahingum covered his mouth to keep from shouting his laughter, though he couldn't stop his shoulders from shaking. Honaw and Takoda looked at him in bemusement, wondering what he found funny about the current situation. Then they realized what had prompted his reaction and they couldn't help but exchange smiles of their own. They all remembered well the events of that fateful evening.

Takoda motioned Keezheekoni to take a seat beside Honaw and Keezheekoni shook his head wryly, knowing exactly what had prompted the looks. He let his mind wander back to the challenge that had given Koko Kanti her status as a warrior in their clan - the youngest to ever accomplish such a feat.

Chapter IV

Koko and Donoma walked sedately back to the camp, though Koko was seething beneath her calm exterior. She knew this would happen but she was hoping there would be a little respite before it did. She shrugged her mental shoulders - oh well, at least getting it over this quickly she would know what sort of place she and her mother would have in this community. Koko looked down at Donoma.

"See, ka'eskone. I told you that you would be safe with me. Let us find your Nahko'e, Donoma, then I have a challenge to fight."

Donoma clutched Koko's hand tightly. "I must remain by your side. It is my right as your warrior advisor." Her demeanor was so serious - Koko struggled to maintain a stoic expression. She had no desire to hurt Donoma's feelings by laughing.

"I do not think your Nahko'e or your Neho'e will allow you to be a witness to the contest, ka'eskone. I believe they desire to protect you." Donoma frowned fiercely and Koko couldn't keep the grin from her face. "We will ask. After all, you are my warrior advisor."

That got a grin so big from Donoma, Takoda wondered as they approached him what on earth had happened to the quiet, introspective child he had known since she'd become his daughter. What was it about this new woman-child that Donoma related with so closely? Then they walked to his fire and he gestured them to join him.

"Rae'l will recover but it will take some time."

Koko nodded. "Good... thank you." A beat. "I have been challenged and Donoma has requested to remain by my side. It is her right as my advisor."

Takoda shook his head - things were happening so rapidly his head was spinning. He never would have imagined when Donoma screamed so fitfully this morning that his world would be so completely turned upside down before darkness fell. "She is a child, Koko Kanti...."

"And we have made a pact... an agreement between the two of us. Do you mean to say that it has no value?"

"No," Takoda protested, wondering how he was being bested by an almost warrior female child and his five-year-old daughter. Life had not been this difficult yesterday. He rubbed a hand over his brow and sighed. "Of course it has value. I just...."

"Koko Kanti!" Keezheekoni bellowed across the encampment. The warriors all rose from their places around their campfires, smiles firmly in place at the entertainment that was obviously coming. It hadn't been so long since the last challenge - Honaw and Keezheekoni for the title of class champion - and they rarely happened for any other reasons in the novice classes, so this was an unexpected treat.

Koko sauntered out to the middle area where Keezheekoni could clearly see her, but before he could speak again, Donoma stepped up beside her. He laughed. "You feel the need to hide behind small children in order to fight a challenge against me?"

Donoma growled and Koko gave her a long, reassuring glance before she turned back to Keez and gifted him with a searing look. "You bellowed?" she asked with a smirk, causing a ripple of laughter to run around the encampment.

Keezheekoni's face grew red. He was already fairly certain from what Honaw had told him that he was going to lose this contest, and he could accept defeat from a better warrior. But to lose face was another matter altogether. She was still untried as far as he and most of his equals were concerned and she had no right to humiliate him in front of the warriors. He started to speak, but she held up a hand and he hesitated.

"Before you get angry, little man, perhaps you should be aware that you insulted my warrior advisor." Eyes widened around the encampment - only the chieftain rated his own warrior advisor in the form of the shaman. It was unheard of for a warrior to form a bond like that with a child... and especially *this* child. Takoda had insisted on protecting her from so much - even before he had learned of her abilities. They could not believe that he would allow such a thing.

When he recovered enough to speak again, Keezheekoni offered Donoma a slight bow. "My apologies, Donoma Chepi. I did not understand your position here." She nodded her head in acceptance of his apology and he turned back to Koko. "You claimed the status of a warrior - that is something that must be proven out to those of us here who are earning that title as well as those who have already succeeded. Do you have anyone to stand with you?"

Honaw spoke up. "I will stand with Koko Kanti. She has defeated me in fair combat and I gave my word to protect her back at the cost of my own life."

Gasps went around the camp. There was a no more serious vow that one warrior could make to another, and to have the class champion admit defeat at the hands of the one being challenged....

"Very well," Keezheekoni acknowledged. "Then form the circle and let the challenge begin."

"Wait," Takoda called as the circle closed in. "The object is not to hurt, maim or kill - but the fight will continue until one of you yields victory. Understood?" Both opponents nodded their agreement to the terms and Takoda clapped his hands together. "Very well," he concurred, stepping back into the ring of warriors and waiting for the two to thrash things out between them.

Koko knelt down to Donoma and looked in her eyes. Donoma took the larger hands in hers. "You will succeed, Koko Kanti," the young seer assured her older friend. "And then your place here will be secure." Koko leaned forward and brushed a kiss over Donoma's forehead before standing. She looked at Honaw who was waiting patiently.

"He is weak on his left side, Koko, and he is not above trickery and deceit. It is one thing that makes him as good as he is; he knows how to use it to his benefit. Watch that he does not take advantage unfairly - he tried to blind me with sand during our bout. A fair trick for a warrior in battle; not an action appreciated by any warrior who encounters it."

Koko nodded then turned to face her new nemesis, crossing her arms and waiting for Keezheekoni to make the first move. It was then that Honaw recognized her tactic - she waited for the other warrior to attack. He wondered where she had been schooled in such a method. It was generally thought best to attack first and defeat your enemy before he was able to do harm to you. Then he heard her taunt Keezheekoni and realized she was making him careless in his rage, just as she had done to Honaw himself earlier.

There were bets going round the circle, and those that had been with Odahingum's group earlier were betting solidly on Koko Kanti. The rest were betting heavily on Keezheekoni, certain no mere female could defeat even their second best warrior-in-training.

Keezheekoni screamed in fury and Honaw wondered what insult Koko had used to invite such fury in the moments it had taken him to place his bet on her. Then Keez rushed towards her and she stepped to one side and extended her arm and the youth dropped to the ground choking and gagging.

Furious at her easy defeat of the chief's eldest son, an older warrior stepped into the ring, eager to show her the place he felt she deserved. He pulled a bone blade and descended on her; she unsheathed her steel blade and he hesitated... long enough for her to swipe it across his chest and draw blood. He looked at her in astonishment - none of the trainees had ever been able to lay a weapon on him... much less draw blood. He nodded in approval and stepped back into the circle.

Meanwhile, Keezheekoni had recovered enough to stand and jumped on her back, not realizing she would use his own weight against him and simply allow him to pull her over so she landed on top of him. The air whoosed out of his lungs and she turned to pin him to the ground. Keez grasped a handful of sand... only to find all her bodyweight resting on his wrists where her knees held him tightly in place.

"Yield to me," she said firmly. He glared at her defiantly and she raised her blade to his throat. Brown eyes widened in shock when he realized she carried steel and not the typical bone knife of his people. "Yield," she growled again.

Keezheekoni released the sand clenched in his fist and nodded his head, lowering his eyes as a sign of respect. Koko nodded and sighed, sliding off his wrists and standing before extending her hand down to him to help him stand. Keez hesitated, then accepted the gesture with a wry smile. It had played out just as Honaw had predicted. He hoped she would be willing to teach them; even the older warriors could learn from her.

Keezheekoni held her gaze and spoke loudly enough to be heard by the gathered crowd. "Let it be known that Koko Kanti has defeated me in fair combat. We will be blood brothers and will protect one another in battle. I welcome her into the tribe as one of our own."

Despite whatever other misgivings Honaw had about Keezheekoni's ability to lead, it was the capacity to acknowledge the bigger picture once he had seen it that convinced Honaw that one day, Keezheekoni would make a fine chief. There weren't many his age that would and in fact Honaw could hear rumblings from several of his comrades who didn't understand Keez's immediate acceptance of Koko. In time they would, but for now, only the older warriors appreciated Keezheekoni's actions.

Odahingum stepped up beside his son and wrapped an arm around shoulders that were still developing. "I believe you have made a wise decision, my son." He extended his free hand to Koko in warrior greeting, smiling when she accepted it without hesitation. "Welcome to our family, Koko Kanti, as a friend, warrior and ally. We are happy to have you and Rae'l as members of our clan."

"Thank you for welcoming us, Chief Odahingum. We look forward to becoming contributing members of our new family and our community."

With her acceptance, a cheer rose from the surrounding warriors and Koko smiled her first full smile, prompting many of the young men to give her a second long look full of interest of another kind. Odahingum sighed; Takoda had told him of Koko's earlier comments on mating. Given the skill the girl already had, it shouldn't be too difficult to make the young warriors understand her position on the subject. He sighed again - it didn't mean it was going to be a fun prospect though.

Odahingum dropped Koko's hand and Donoma jumped into her arms before any of the men could even make a move to congratulate her and welcome her to the tribe. She threw her slender arms around Koko's neck and hugged her tightly. "I told you that you would succeed, Koko."

Koko hugged the small child back gently, surrounded by the warmth and acceptance Donoma offered her unquestioningly. "You did indeed, ka'eskone. You are going to be a very powerful ally for this warrior. Thank you for your guidance."

Donoma smiled and the crowd around the two smiled indulgently. When Donoma smiled, things seemed to go better for the tribe as a whole, and with the addition of Koko Kanti to their warriors-in-training, things were looking even better.

At Odahingum's urging, everyone headed back to their campfires, eager to talk about all that had happened that day and the things they had just seen and heard. The chief, his sons, the shaman and his sons followed Donoma who was still being carried in Koko's arms back to their respective fires next to one another.

The boys were met by their mothers and sent off to clean up while Litonya led Koko and Donoma into the dwelling where Rachel was resting comfortably. Koko set Donoma on her feet then crossed the small space and knelt at her mother's side. She reached for Rachel's hand and was glad to see bright blue eyes flutter open.

"Hello, Nahko'e. How are you feeling?"

Rachel smiled weakly. "I have been better, Koko, but I have certainly been worse. Litonya has taken very good care of me and I think we will be good friends when I am able to be up and out from underfoot." She squeezed the hand holding hers. "How did you do?" able to recognize the signs of a fight even if Litonya had not shared news of the challenge.

"She won!" Donoma exclaimed excitedly, running from her place by Litonya in the doorway. "She beat Keezheekoni fair and square... just like I said she would." Koko wrapped an arm around Donoma's shoulders. Rachel smiled at the pair of them.

"We have a place here, Nahko'e. We have been welcomed as friends and allies."

"And warriors?" Koko smiled.

"And warriors, though I still need to speak with the chief about what that will entail. But for now I have earned us a place here, Nahko'e. We can settle with this clan and be safe among friends."

"Good, Koko... I am so proud of you. Thank you for taking such good care of both of us." Rachel's eyes slid closed and Litonya crossed to her side.

"She needs to sleep. Today has been long and difficult and tomorrow will be much the same. She will heal, but it will be slow - things will be difficult for her for some time to come. Now come... you both need nourishment before you settle into bed tonight. It has been a very long day already and I do not think tomorrow will be any better in that regard."

Litonya led them both back out to the fire and Takoda gestured Koko to the place of honor. Donoma clutched her hand tightly and was seated next to her for the sake of peace. Honaw took Takoda's other side and his three brothers sat next to him in birth order. Litonya served out the meal, then sat next to Donoma to eat her own as Takoda and Koko talked.

"You have been well-trained already in the ways of a warrior, Koko Kanti," Takoda offered seriously. "Yet your skills and thinking are much different than ours. Who was your teacher?"

Koko let her spoon drop back into the bowl she held in her hand and looked directly at Takoda to gauge the earnestness of his speech. Satisfied, she nodded her head and returned her attention to her food, taking a bite and chewing slowly as she considered the best way to answer his question. Finally, simple honesty won out. They would need to know most of the story eventually.

"My Neho'e taught me from the time I was old enough to learn."

"So you've been training for three seasons? Maybe five?

"I have been training for almost nine full cycles. It will be nine next season."

"And you will be...?"

"I will be thirteen cycles."

Takoda was hard pressed to keep a stoic face in place at her announcement, but he managed to do little more than raise an eyebrow. Koko grinned. She knew he wasn't expecting that answer from her. Honaw chuckled as soon as he was able to stop his jaw from hanging loose.

"Are you serious?" he asked after a moment, a wide grin splitting his face.

"Yes... I am a warrior-in-training; we are not allowed to express humor." Her delivery and expression were so deadpan, it took everyone by surprise for a moment and her pronouncement was met with dead silence. Then Donoma chirped out, "Koko, you are very funny."

Koko's expression became chagrined and she shook her head and gave a wry smile. Everyone around the circle shared a good laugh, including Donoma, though she really had no idea why she was laughing other than everyone else was. After a moment, they settled down again and Takoda took back control of the conversation.

"I wondered how I had missed your age so badly, but it seems that you have been training since you were a ka'eskone even younger than Donoma Chepi. Your Neho'e must have been a very great warrior to have taught you so much so young. Who was he?"

Koko sighed. "Honiahaka was my Neho'e. He taught me many things before he died."

Eyes widened around the circle. All of them had heard of Honiahaka; he was a legendary fighter against the Blue Coats out here on the Plains.

Takoda smiled gently. He understood so much more about Koko now than he had this morning - was it only this morning? - he asked himself again before turning his attention back to the young warrior sitting at his fire. So many more things made sense. But the new knowledge also brought more questions to his mind. What had happened to Honiahaka? And why had his family been dishonored as they had been? Even for the sake of purity within the tribe, a warrior's family had certain rights.

But, he decided firmly, all his questions could wait for another day. Donoma had fallen asleep against Koko's arm and even his sons were showing signs of fatigue. He motioned to Litonya who accepted his bowl and removed Koko's from her hands and then Donoma's. With a smile of dismissal, Takoda waved her towards the tent, indicating he would settle the boys by the fire and stay with them. It would not be seemly for him to stay in his tent tonight, especially after he had learned Koko's true age.

"We will talk more tomorrow, Koko Kanti," he assured her. "But now it is time for everyone to get some sleep. It has been a very exciting day." He reached down to remove Donoma's grip from Koko's arm, but found the child resisted fiercely, a frown marring her otherwise peaceful visage. He looked at Koko in consternation and she shrugged, then lifted the child into her arms.

"You seemed to have acquired a new charge, Koko Kanti."

"I seem to have acquired a friend, Takoda. Good night."

"Good night, my young warrior friend. May the Spirits guide your dreams."


Koko Kanti thrashed restlessly on the pallet she was laying on and Donoma Chepi checked her brow in concern. The warrior's fever was rising already and to Donoma, that meant nothing good. She stepped to the doorway and motioned to her brother Honaw. Of all the warriors in the camp, Honaw was the one Koko had trusted the most. She would not mind as much if he saw her in her weakened state.

Everyone around the fire rose when she motioned, but Donoma shook her head, asking only for Honaw. The rest watched as he went in and exited almost immediately carrying Koko in his strong arms. Donoma walked out beside him and they headed towards the small creek the camp was set next to.

Before they could resume their seats, the second of Takoda's sons walked briskly back into camp loaded down under the possessions he had removed from Koko's horse. The saddle was still bloody, but everything else was neatly packed away in her saddle bags. Even her rifle was still in its sheath and her holstered pistols were draped around it. He waited for his father to motion and then took them into the dwelling where Koko had so recently been, placing them gently in a stack in the back. Then he went back out to the fire to join the rest in their vigil.

Odahingum and Takoda exchanged glances and the chieftain shook his head. "I do not think she came home to mate, my friend. I think she came home to die."

Chapter V

Takoda frowned - that didn't coincide with the brief glimpse he had been given in his vision. He peered intently at Odahingum. "Why do you say that, Odahingum? It makes no sense... especially not according to what I have seen."

Odahingum gave Takoda a sympathetic look. "I do not know what you have seen Takoda - only what I can see right now before me with my two eyes." He paused. "Koko Kanti lived with us for many years... long enough to know there would always be a place for her to call home here if she ever decided to return. She would have returned as the warrior she was in the white man's world but not bringing so many worldly possessions. Everything she has need of is already here."

"And if she was bringing gifts to honor her chosen mate?"

Odahingum shook his head. "I understand what you are saying, Takoda. It is just not the feeling I am receiving from her appearance. Wounded or not, if she was coming home as a warrior to take a mate, she would never have given up her weapons... even to her horse." He paused again. "Perhaps Donoma will be able to shed some light on the situation - assuming Koko lives through the night."

Takoda closed his eyes. Koko wouldn't be so stupid to break his daughter's heart a second time... would she? He remembered all too clearly the events of the day she had left them for good - a little more than five full cycles ago. A time after Donoma turned fifteen seasons... and the first warrior had approached Takoda with an interest in making Donoma his wife.


Ahanu was an older warrior and as far as Takoda was concerned, an unsuitable mate for Donoma. Takoda had his own ideas of who would make the best mate for his beloved daughter, but it was not his place to make that determination. However, he would allow Donoma the choice, but he would not be without influence as well. Hopefully, she was not in any rush to be wed.

Ahanu approached Takoda first, stating his intentions and making his wishes known. Takoda listened politely, then informed Ahanu that the choice was strictly Donoma's. The warrior was unhappy with that answer, thinking the decision should have been made between men... especially since he was one who had much to offer. Why should the decision be left to one who was neither woman nor child?

Donoma and Koko came back from their afternoon walk and Donoma stayed by the fire at Takoda's behest. Koko walked away just far enough that she couldn't be accused of overtly eavesdropping, but where she was still an acknowledged presence.

Ahanu presented his case again, trying to convince Donoma of the benefits of mating with him. Instead, she looked at him in horror and then turned her attention to Takoda.

"No, Neho'e. I have no desire to be mated to him or any other man right now. I am happy as I am with you and Nahko'e and Koko... and even my hestatanemos. That is all the family I need in my life."

Ahanu grew livid - how dare she reject him in favor of Koko. But he was not a stupid man either, and jerked his head in Donoma's direction before stomping away from their campfire. Donoma watched him go, then turned and entered the dwelling she shared with Takoda and Litonya. Koko watched and kept her own council the rest of the day and long into the night before coming to the only decision she could live with.

She was gone before the sun came up and no one knew the reason why. Koko hadn't spoken to anyone before she left and she hadn't left written word with any member of the tribe. And though Honaw knew she had been restless and unhappy since her Nahko'e died two cycles previously, he suspected what had happened with Ahanu had merely served as the final impetus Koko needed to leave.

But when Donoma discovered Koko's defection, she withdrew back into herself, shunning all but her family. It was a dark time for the clan and even now Donoma bore the scars from Koko's desertion. Takoda wondered if either of them would ever recover from the damage that had been done to their sensitive souls due to their separation.


Honaw knelt down carefully beside the creek bank and placed Koko's burning body into the shallowest part. He removed the thin blanket Donoma had used to cover her and threw it behind him, submerging all but Koko's face and waiting for further instruction from Donoma. Donoma motioned to her mother who stood in the shadows nearby and requested robes and furs for Koko's body to be placed in once her fever was down. She busied herself with collecting enough chips to start a brisk fire burning. Then she moved to the water's edge to monitor Koko's symptoms.

She met Honaw's eyes and he smiled reassuringly at her. Donoma remained somber and let her mind go back to the earliest days of her friendship with Koko - when the world seemed full of possibilities.


Things had settled down after that first hectic day when Koko Kanti and Rachel Stone had become part of their tribe. Takoda shared with Odahingum who Koko's father was and how long she had been training. She became part of the advanced group of warriors-in-training and was assigned the rather daunting task of teaching others her methods of fighting and hand-to-hand combat. Donoma was so proud of her - and even more thrilled to be acknowledged publicly as Koko's warrior advisor. Most of the warriors welcomed them both and were eager to learn if only to give them a tactical advantage in that area of battle. Those who weren't - many of them being Koko's age mates - were encouraged by the actions of their elders and soon she was teaching most of the warriors in the camp.

Odahingum was made aware of the promise she had given to Donoma and every afternoon the two were allowed a bit of time for play. If the other warriors wondered why someone of Koko's age, skill and natural ability was given time to play as a child instead of working on her training or theirs, they soon understood by looking at the beatific smile that now almost continually graced Donoma's face. They simply smiled themselves and went about their business.

It took a little while for Takoda to learn the story of Rachel's and Koko's exile from their original tribe, but he was patient and finally got the whole story. What he heard made him angry and thankful at the same time - because if they had been treated right by Honiahaka's clan, Koko and Rachel would never have come to them and Donoma would never have blossomed into such a happy child.

Koko's voice was low and even and Donoma had to strain to hear it from inside the tent where her bed was. She was supposed to be sleeping and that made her a little mad - why did they think she was not old enough to hear Koko's story? Even Rachel, who still suffered great pain and had immense difficulty getting around the winter camp, was sitting by the fire to support her daughter as she told the tale that had brought them into Odahingum's camp.

"My father was a great warrior - a fierce warrior - and when he was a young buck, he thought he was invincible... impervious to laws and traditions. And he was strong enough to back his claim - he had defeated everyone who had challenged him. When his war party happened upon a wagon train of white settlers crossing the prairie, he did not kill all those who traveled in it. Instead, he took one look into the pretty blue eyes of a young Rachel Stone and claimed her as his own. The rest of his party thought it great fun, not realizing that he was more smitten than conquering - though that understanding would come soon enough."

"When they returned to their camp, silence fell as everyone got a look at Honiahaka's prize of war. He took her to his tent and made her his wife - she was unwilling at first, but eventually they grew to care for one another very much. Still it did not make her accepted as part of the tribe. But for a brief time, their lives settled."

"After several cycles of life together Rae'l became with child and in the autumn season of that cycle, she gave birth to a baby girl - me. I was not a welcome addition, but Neho'e was happy to have someone of his own blood to instruct and teach, and Nahko'e was glad Neho'e was happy."

"Honiahaka continued to be a successful warrior - feared and respected whenever he went out and defeated the Blue Coats or destroyed the white man's settlements. But in the camp there was always a bit of anger directed towards him and his mongrel family, and he soon recognized that he needed to teach his half-breed, impure child how to defend herself and her Nahko'e when the time came."

"So just before I turned four seasons, Neho'e started teaching me to become a warrior, and to his great surprise, I learned quickly. I was most definitely Honiahaka's daughter and soon I knew more than all the other warriors-in-training did in the ways of waging war."

"The clan accepted my skills reluctantly - but only because Neho'e refused to teach the rest if I was not allowed to be a part. And the tribe needed his skills much more than they needed to hate me or Nahko'e. So for a while, life became an almost comfortable and familiar pattern and if we were not liked, we were finally tolerated."

Koko paused and sighed deeply, accepting the water skin from Litonya with a grateful smile. She had never spoken so much in her entire life and her tongue felt swollen and her throat scratchy, and she wasn't even done yet. But these People deserved to know the whole truth of what had happened. Koko took another long pull on the skin and drew in deep breath and resumed her story.

"This past spring, Neho'e was sent out to ambush a company of Blue Coats that were intent on building a fort in our territory - once again flaunting the agreement the government had made with our People. But some of the tribe thought it a perfect opportunity to finally rid themselves of the impure blood that was now part of the clan." Koko drew a shuddering breath, but the tears that rested in her eyes were not permitted to fall.

"So they set him up... and they ambushed him."

"Koko," Rachel admonished softly. "We do not know that for certain."

"Yes, Nahko'e... We do!" Koko answered angrily. "*I* do!" poking a finger at her chest. "Neho'e would not have been killed in the manner in which he died had the warriors of his own tribe not betrayed his trust! He was better than that - he would never have been caught unaware by the Blue Coats like that... not like he would have by his own."

Her words fell into silence and Koko stood. "Excuse me," she said in unbroken English to her mother, giving the others a nod as she stood. How far she might have gotten had she been able to get out of the firelight, it was difficult to say. But as soon as she had both legs firmly under her, Koko Kanti found her arms full of Donoma Chepi, and though Litonya rose to gather her wayward daughter and tuck her back into bed with a mild scolding, a look from Takoda stopped her actions. She resumed her place around the campfire and watched as the two moved over to Koko's dwelling.

Donoma didn't speak; she merely ran her small hands over Koko's wild hair soothingly, feeling the young warrior relax beneath her touch. Koko kept her head down, relishing the gentle touch and willing away the hatred she had felt for her father's people since the day they had brought him home dead. Finally, Koko gave Donoma a hug, holding on for what seemed like forever. Donoma held on, sensing Koko's need and loving the attention. When blue eyes met green, they twinkled somberly.

"Thank you, ka'eskone. I am very glad my warrior advisor gives such good hugs. I feel much better."

"Me too," the younger child quipped instantly. "I am sorry the bad men were so mean to you and Rae'l, Koko. They should have been able to see all the good in you that I do. They would never have treated you so badly." She paused, not wanting to upset Koko, but needing Koko to know the truth of her feelings as well. "I am sorry those bad men were so mean to your Neho'e, too. He sounds like he was a nice Neho'e like mine and a good warrior."

Koko smiled shakily. "He was a very nice Neho'e, Donoma. He played games with me and taught me tricks for hunting and trapping when we were not in warrior training. He would have liked you very much, I think."

Donoma beamed. "Really? Do you truly think so?"

"Oh yes," Koko replied seriously. "You have very pretty eyes and hair the color of wheat in the sunshine. And you are very smart. He liked to talk to people that were smart. It is one reason he and my Nahko'e learned to love one another."

"Rae'l is smart?" Donoma asked - not disbelievingly as much as matter-of-factly, as though she had not considered such a possibility before.

"Oh yes, she is very smart. She taught me to read and write and understand the white man's world. If I am ever forced to live there, I could survive. I do not think I could be happy in that world, but I could survive."

"Do you think she would teach me? I would like to know these things."

Koko shrugged. "You would need for Takoda or Litonya to approve the lessons, but I know she is willing to teach any who wish to learn. But ka'eskone, are you sure you want to learn? It is very difficult. They have such a harsh and confusing language and their customs and way of life go against so much of what we know."

"But what if I ever need to survive there, Koko? Shouldn't I know how to do so much as you do?"

"Ka'eskone, you will never need such knowledge. You have your Neho'e and your hestatanemos and me to look out for you. We would never put you in any sort of danger that might force you to become part of such a bizarre and wasteful culture. But," Koko continued, holding up her hand to keep Donoma from interrupting, "if you still want to learn and your Neho'e and Nahko'e are willing, my Nahko'e will teach you."

Donoma nodded emphatically. "Good," she said with surprising firmness. "I want to be just like you."

Koko blinked. No one had ever said that to her before and being placed into the position of a role model was a frightening and novel experience. She found it slightly unnerving. She swallowed. "Come...." standing and lifting Donoma back into her arms. "I think it is past your bedtime and I need to finish telling Takoda my story."

Donoma shook her head. "No," stated without hesitation. "You come with me. It is time for all to sleep. Tomorrow will be soon enough to finish telling your tale." She crossed her arms over her chest, trusting Koko not to drop her and narrowed her eyes into a glare. It was so impossibly cute, Koko could not resist smiling, though she did curtail her laughter. She dropped a kiss on the blonde head and Donoma snuggled back into her arms, knowing she had won her point.

They reached Takoda's fire and three sets of concerned eyes met her gaze, searching for any sign of her previous upset and relaxing minutely when there was none. Koko cleared her throat. "Donoma has informed me that it is time for all of us to sleep now, and that I will stay with her tonight. However, since we have more room in our home, I think she should stay with me instead and we will continue this conversation in the morning."

Takoda's eyes were twinkling in delighted mirth long before Koko finished her speech, but he merely nodded his head gravely and said, "If your warrior advisor has said, then it must be true. Is she agreeable to the change you made?"

Koko and Donoma exchanged serious glances, then Donoma broke out into a wreath of smiles and nodded her head rapidly.

"Then it is settled," Takoda proclaimed and stood, knocking out his pipe and motioning to the rest of his family and Rachel towards their dwellings. "We can talk more tomorrow." And before much time had past, they were all settled down for the night.


Donoma spread the blankets and furs Litonya had brought back before she returned to the encampment to heat some broth for her daughter to feed Koko. She knew all too well that the body needed to eat to heal itself, even if the nourishment had to be forced. And if anyone was up to *that* particular task with *this* particular warrior, Donoma Chepi definitely was.

Donoma kept one eye on Koko's injured body, wondering again what had put her friend in such horrible condition. "You did survive in the white man's world, Nutta," she whispered, "but at what cost?" The wounds reminded her greatly of the story Koko had told them of her father's body when it had been brought home to her and Rachel - a story she had shared only once.


The following evening, Takoda invited Koko to his fire to finish the story she had begun. He had an idea that she needed to finish as badly as he needed to hear the rest. She took her place in the circle, only this time, Donoma sat beside her. They had been inseparable all day and Odahingum had let them be, having heard Koko's story from Takoda over the morning meal. Now Takoda allowed them to stay together for the last part of Koko's tale.

She took a deep breath, then started speaking in a low, clear voice. "Neho'e had been shot in the side, giving credence to the fact that he had been ambushed by the Blue Coats. But marks on his wrists showed they had been bound and he was beaten and bruised over a large portion of his body. His face was mangled almost beyond recognition. I knew the way the Blue Coats fought - Neho'e made certain I understood how they fought so I would be able to defeat them with their own tactics. I knew when I saw him that he was the victim of treachery and deceit. But my complaints were dismissed without consideration as if they were of no importance."

"Neho'e was given a burial befitting a warrior the stature of Honiahaka, his pyre burning so long and high that surely the Great Spirit mourned with us before taking his spirit to the land without the white man."

"Before his ashes were even cold, the chieftain informed Nahko'e that Honiahaka's mongrels were no longer welcome in his camp. She tried to argue... to fight back before I could stop her. The chief hit her - hard enough that she fell and damaged her leg. I pulled my blade on his eldest son and drew blood. It was the only reason we were allowed to leave, though the chieftain did explain what would happen if he ever saw either of us around his tribe again."

Silence was the only indication they had that Koko was done speaking. Then Donoma spoke up. "The Great Spirit will not honor that chief when his time comes to cross over." Takoda blinked - even he had not seen such. Only time would tell how accurate Donoma's sight actually was.


Donoma saw Litonya approaching with a bowl cradled in her hands and she motioned to Honaw to removed Koko from the water. He scooped her into his arms and stood dripping while Donoma wrapped Koko's inert body in the blanket she had been covered in. Then they moved together toward the bed Donoma had created from the furs Litonya had provided. Donoma sat first, then Honaw deposited Koko into her arms and backed away to a respectable distance - somewhere he could watch over both of them without invading the privacy he suspected they would need.

Litonya crossed to their side, easing the wet hair away from Koko's bruised face before looking at Donoma. They didn't speak - there was no need. Instead, she placed the warm broth in Donoma's hands, then swept the loose, blonde hair away from her face, pushing the few small braids she wore behind her ear. She leaned forward and placed a kiss on Donoma's forehead. Then she rose and moved to join Honaw in his vigil at the edge of the clearing.

Donoma closed her eyes and brushed a bare kiss over Koko's temple. She felt Koko relax against her and she smiled slightly and set about trying to feed Koko the broth she held. Then she started humming an old lullaby that Koko had sung to her on more than one occasion when sleep had been elusive because of the things she saw in her dreams and let her mind wander back to the first time Koko had shared the song with her.

Chapter VI

The colder weather made life more difficult and challenging than it was in the warmer months but things in the clan settled and were good for a while. The winter camp was established and they were mostly left alone by both the Blue Coats and the fiercer tribes that also dotted the Plains. Their attention was more focused on survival in the harsher conditions, but there was still time devoted to fun as well as English lessons for a number of the tribe. And Donoma had convinced Takoda and Litonya to allow her the opportunity to learn.

"Sometimes I wish for the shy, quiet child we once had to return to us," Litonya grumbled good-naturedly when she heard Donoma squeal as Koko gave chase. Takoda shushed her.

"It is good to hear her laughter, Litonya. I had despaired of her ever being a child."

Litonya smiled at him. "I know, Takoda. I just sometimes miss the peace I had around camp for a little while every day. I think Koko Kanti and Rae'l make wonderful additions to our tribe and I am truly glad they are a part of it."

"As am I, Litonya. The warriors are very pleased to be learning the white man's tongue, though the younger ones are having a much easier time than the older ones are. Still, it will give us an advantage in battle and they all recognize that."

Litonya nodded. "Some of the women have been sitting in on the children's lessons, but I don't think they find it nearly as interesting. A lot of the children don't understand the point of it either, but Rae'l is very patient with them. And I think Donoma's enthusiasm is a balm to her."

"Our daughter is very bright - she should do well in this endeavor."

"But to what purpose, Takoda? She is already so different from her age mates that they do not play together and you will not allow the boys near her."

"As it should be," he stated emphatically.

"As it should be," Litonya agreed. "But Takoda, is it good that she continues to remain separate from the rest? How will she ever be a true part of the People when she remains so different?"

Takoda took Litonya's hand in his and they turned and headed back towards the encampment. "Litonya, she will always, *always* be different and nothing we do will ever change that. She is of the white man, even though she is truly our daughter and we love her as such. She has an exceptional gift - I suspect her sight is more powerful than my own. The best we can do for her is to allow her to grow into the person she is meant to be. Other than that, I will not force her into a moccasin she will never fit in. It is not fair to her or to the other children. It may be that she will never be a true part of the People - I have not seen her future. But we should give her every advantage we can. The rest is up to her."

"And Koko Kanti."

"Very likely," Takoda agreed as the arrived back at their dwelling.

As was typical at least once every few days, Donoma wheedled and cajoled until she was allowed to stay the night with Koko and Rachel. Aside from the time it gave her with Koko which she cherished, Donoma was always excited about the chance to read with Rachel. She saw other worlds opening up to her and she was never lonely when she went there, and most of the time, Koko was right there beside her.

The story had been funny and Rachel created intriguing different voices for each of the bears and mimicked a little girl who sounded a lot like Donoma. But the cadence of Rachel's voice as she read to them was rhythmic. Donoma fell asleep before the tale was finished and Koko smiled at her mother before tucking their little guest in for the evening. Then she stepped outside into the cold, clear night and looked up at the stars.

She and her father had shared time like this often - not speaking, yet content in one another's presence. It was now when Koko missed her Neho'e the most. Rachel stood in the doorway watching her for a long moment before stepping out to join her. She didn't say a word aloud, but her light clasp on Koko's shoulder spoke volumes. Koko smiled at her before turning her gaze back to the night sky.

"I miss him, you know," Rachel said softly, her own voice low and raspy. "I think I always will."

Koko was quiet so long Rachel was sure she was not going to comment. Then, surprisingly, she spoke in a clear concise tone. "Neho'e always told me that the lights in the sky were the souls of honored warriors that watched over those they had left behind." She glanced at her mother to find Rachel looking intently at her. "Do you see the red light?" pointing out the particular one she was talking about. Rachel followed the line of her arm and nodded. "Do you see the tiny white light just to the right of it?" Another nod. "The night after we sang Neho'e's spirit to the other side, that light appeared in the sky. I like to think it is his spirit watching over us. Sometimes I come out here and look at that light and I feel so close to him... like he is still here with us."

Rachel remained silent for a long moment after that before turning to look directly into eyes that were mirror images to her own. "Thank you, Koko Kanti. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful and personal image with me."

What Koko might have replied was lost in the sound of a frightened scream, and she was up and back in their home before Rachel even turned in that direction. She trusted that Koko could calm Donoma's fears - whatever they were - and she still had difficulty moving very quickly. So she slowly rose and moved to her doorway, standing at it much like she had earlier - only this time she was looking in.

Donoma was cradled in Koko's arms and Koko was singing softly - the same song Rachel had sung to Koko when she had been a little girl. The crying had stopped and Rachel watched her daughter tenderly push the damp blonde hair off Donoma's face and wipe the tears from her cheeks. Koko looked up when she felt her mother's presence, but she didn't stop singing. Only when Donoma's breathing deepened did she lay the child back on the bed of furs they generally shared and turn to her mother. She never realized Donoma was not fully asleep, but merely felt safe enough in her presence to fully relax again.

"What happened?" Rachel asked softly. "Do you know what she dreamed about?"

Koko shook her head. "She did not share her vision with me. She simply clutched at me with great strength and held on to me like I was her only link to life. I thought it best to let her do so."

Rachel smiled at her, gentle pride in her eyes. "You would be a wonderful mother, Koko, if that was your destiny," she added before Koko could protest. "I am so proud of the way you look after the ka'eskone, my daughter. I know it goes against your warrior nature to do so in the way that you do."

Koko thoughtfully shook her head. "It doesn't, Nahko'e... not really. There is a part of me - part of the warrior - that needs to look after Donoma Chepi so carefully. Perhaps it is because she is my warrior advisor," she responded slowly, not really understanding it herself.

Rachel bit her lips, looking like she wanted to comment on that particular arrangement, but she was wary of pushing. Though Koko was still her daughter and a child in many respects, she was also an acknowledged warrior within the tribe and as such was the head of the household. She held the responsibility of an adult; therefore she was afforded the courtesies of one as well.

Koko watched the indecision flow across Rachel's expressive countenance. She had learned the hard way, during her years in the other tribe, what was and was not acceptable for a female to question or comment on... even within the privacy of her own household. Koko decided to make it easier for her.

"What is it, Nahko'e?"

Rachel looked at her for a long moment as if judging how much she really wanted to ask, then blew out a breath and held out her arm. Koko took the hint and extended her own, supporting her mother and helping her ease down onto her bed of furs before squatting down beside her. Then she waited patiently for her mother to speak.

Rachel spent a moment just looking at Koko; she reminded Rachel so much of Honiahaka - strong, thoughtful and caring. Rachel wondered if her daughter would be as fierce in battle or as full of anger and independent of rules as she grew older. She had the distinct feeling that she would - her friendship with Donoma was proof enough that she would do what she thought was right. Regardless of what others decided. She smiled softly and Koko cocked her head.

"Am I supposed to guess what you are thinking, Nahko'e or would you like to share?" The smile she offered was teasing and Rachel had the good grace to blush.

"Right at that moment I was thinking how much you reminded me of Honiahaka. But before that," a deep breath, "I was wondering why you made Donoma Chepi your warrior advisor. She is so young, as are you, relatively speaking, and yet you forged a lifelong bond to a child... a complete stranger. Why? Why would you place such a burden on either of you? You could have simply been friends."

"It is no burden, Nahko'e." Koko closed her eyes a moment, then opened them again and resumed speaking. "She was not a complete stranger nor could we have simply been friends."

"What do you mean, Koko Kanti?"

"I am not entirely sure yet, Nahko'e, but I know these things to be true. Donoma Chepi and I are two differents. There must be a reason that the Great Spirit brought us together."

Rachel understood exactly what her daughter meant by 'differents', but she had to honestly admit she had never considered either child in that manner - probably because she was the epitome of 'differents' in this society. Donoma had obviously never known any other life and Koko... well, Koko tended to be a law unto herself.

"You do not think you were brought together because of your differences then?"

Koko shook her dark head. "No, Nahko'e. There is more to it than that. I cannot explain it any better than that, but I know it is true. Just as I know making her my advisor was the right thing for both of us."

Rachel didn't look completely convinced, but she nodded her acceptance of Koko's words. "Then I will ask no more questions. But Koko, remember you will always have a responsibility to her - to listen to her counsel even when you disagree and to protect her even when she wants to stand up for herself. That is the reason such a bonding usually remains between a chieftain and his tribal shaman."

"I know, Nahko'e, but I also believe this was necessary."

"Very well, my daughter. We will speak of this no more."


Odahingum looked around the camp, noting the large number of people still awake and waiting for some word from Donoma on Koko Kanti's condition. The youngest of the children had been tucked into bed for the night, but it appeared that everyone else - everyone who had known the warrior before her abrupt leave-taking five cycles ago - they sat waiting pensively to hear whether the warrior would live or die.

"This is very frustrating," he commented to Takoda, whose posture exuded peace and confidence. Only sitting this close could the chief see worry and hints of despair in the dark eyes that faced him. "What is wrong, Takoda? Do you not believe Koko Kanti will survive?"

"I am worried Koko Kanti's return will destroy my daughter - regardless of whether she lives or dies."

"You do not think...."

"I do not know... and that is what concerns me. The longer I sit here doing nothing, the more difficult it is to bear... especially as I am unable to see anything in regards to the two of them clearly."

Surprisingly, Odahingum chuckled lightly and patted Takoda's knee in comfort. "Welcome to the normal world of being a parent, my friend. None of the rest of us can see what Fate has in store for our children either. Why do you think so much of my hair is no longer dark, but silver instead?"

Takoda couldn't help the reluctant smile that crossed his face. "Point made, Odahingum, but it doesn't make me worry any less."

"Of course it does not; they are both your children in one regard or another and they have already been very badly hurt - Koko on the outside and Donoma in her spirit. And we do not know what sort of damage Koko's karma has sustained during her sojourn into the white man's world or why she made the journey in the first place. We have far too many unanswered questions as of yet."

Takoda snorted. "If she had not come home so critically wounded, I would have taken her over my knee and demanded an explanation for her abrupt departure and subsequent silence. I still might if she recovers."

Odahingum howled - the sound out of place with the somber mood that surrounded the rest of the encampment. But he couldn't control the laughter once the picture of Takoda attempting to spank Koko presented itself in his mind's eye. Not only was Koko almost a head taller, she was just much stronger and faster than Takoda had been even as a much younger man.

All eyes turned towards Odahingum, but he just shook his head and wiped his eyes. "I am sorry, Takoda, but the mental image you gave me just then was more than a little amusing. Do you remember how strong she was as a warrior-in-training? It used to make our sons so angry."

Takoda nodded, a slight smile now gracing his own features. "They never understood that Koko always had something she believed in to guide her when she fought. And that Donoma gave her strength because it meant there was always someone that believed in her."

"We would never be defeated by the Blue Coats or any others if each of our warriors had ties to something like those two did. I am convinced much of Koko's spirit and determination came from Donoma's belief in her and not from her father's legacy as many believe - which is one reason I never understood her disappearance."

"I hope she lives to give us an explanation."

"She will, my friend. Your daughter will make sure of that."


Litonya and Honaw sat silently just within hearing range of Donoma's voice, able to barely pick out the tune she was humming into Koko's ear. They had both heard Rachel and Koko sing it a few times over the years, but neither of them had learned it themselves. It was somewhat haunting, and to hear it now coming from Donoma's voice sent a chill skittering down both spines. But they had resolved to stay nearby until and unless Donoma dismissed them and they watched as she tenderly ministered to the warrior that was now a stranger to them all.

For her part, Donoma focused all her energy and attention on the patient she held in her arms, concentrating on getting the warm broth into her. She refused to let herself think or feel beyond the moment she was in, knowing if she did, she would lose control. And she hadn't yet decided if she was more hurt or angry at Koko for her defection. All she knew for certain was that for reasons Donoma had never really questioned very deeply, more than five full cycles of seasons had passed and that part of her still ached and bled as though the wound was fresh.

She continued humming the song Rachel and Koko had taught her long ago - it brought a measure of peace to her heart and she could feel Koko continue to relax under her ministrations. She wondered in a distant way if Koko recognized where she was and who she was with or if it simply the familiarity of the tune that made her feel safe.

Donoma silently thanked Takoda for teaching her the art of healing... especially the points that allowed her to force nourishment into Koko's body while she was unable or unwilling to do so for herself. Slowly, very slowly, Donoma placed broth into Koko's mouth then triggered the swallowing reflex. Koko's breathing remained slow and steady throughout the process and Donoma breathed a sigh of relief when they were finally done.

She motioned to the two still, waiting bodies just at the periphery of her vision, noting both of them jerk into motion at her gesture. Honaw helped his mother rise from the ground, then together they approached Donoma.

She reached out the empty bowl to Litonya. "Thank you, Nahko'e."

"Do you wish for more, my nahtona?"

Donoma shook her blonde head. "No, thank you. I do not think her body will tolerate anything more at the moment. Perhaps later we can try again."

"Perhaps later she will be awake to do it herself."

Donoma nodded but she did not answer verbally. She had serious doubts about the outcome of this particular situation. Instead she looked at Honaw. "I need you to help me recline and then position Koko in my embrace. We have to get her fever down and I cannot chance her catching a chill."

"Out here, Donoma?" he questioned.

"It is for the best, Honaw," her eyes saying more to him than her lips would admit aloud. He nodded, accepting her words both spoken and unspoken and took Koko Kanti into his arms while Donoma shifted into a laying position. Then he turned Koko on her side and held her until Donoma wrapped her arms around the warrior from behind.

"Thank you, Honaw," she whispered. "Now, you and Nahko'e go back to the camp and tell them to rest. It will be a while before we see any change... bad or good."

"I cannot leave you here alone, ka'eskone. I know you are a grown woman," holding up a hand to cut off her protest to being referred to by her childhood title. "But you are still no warrior. And the warrior you hold is unable to protect you as her sworn oath to you demands. I gave my word to her, ka'eskone, just as she did to you those many cycles ago. Do not make me break the vow I made."

Donoma groaned silently and closed her eyes. She knew he was right on several levels although the knowledge did not make things any easier. She closed her eyes and reluctantly nodded her head. "Very well," she conceded, "but only you and only if you wait at the edge of the clearing where you were before." She opened her eyes and looked at Litonya. "Will you return to the camp, Nahko'e and give them the news? And instruct them not to come here."

Litonya nodded. "How will we know...?" unsure how best to finish her question.

"I will send Honaw with word."

"All right, Donoma. I will do as you have asked." Litonya leaned forward once more and kissed her daughter's forehead. "Rest well... both of you," knowing Honaw would remain awake to watch over them for as long as it took. She watched Donoma's eyes close and then looked at her eldest son. "Do you require anything? A water skin perhaps or a blanket? I do not want you becoming sick from this and I doubt your family does either." They started back to the spot where Honaw would be keeping his vigil over his sisters.

"I would appreciate my fur robe, Nahko'e," he replied honestly. "And tell Gaagii and our children not to worry."

"You know she will, but I will tell them anyway," Litonya said with a slight smile. "I will be back with your robe in a moment. You will come get me directly if there is any change."

"Yes, Nahko'e."

Litonya was back in a moment as she had promised, and Honaw draped his robe over himself and listened to the sounds of the camp settling down behind him. Then he turned his attention to the pair wrapped together by the fire and let his mind remember the things he had heard about the warrior Koko Kanti who in the white man's world was known as Reb Stone.

Chapter VII

When Koko Kanti had disappeared from their lives, Honaw determined to find out where she was and why she had left. He felt they all deserved an answer, but he knew Donoma *needed* one. It shouldn't have been too difficult - after all, Koko Kanti was a feared and respected name on the Plains. How hard could it be to find a half-breed female warrior with piercing blue eyes?

What Honaw didn't consider at first was that Koko was indeed a half-breed... a woman with two distinct heritages. And when she left the tribe, she used that to her advantage. Koko Kanti was left behind as a myth... a legend born on the Plains to explain the defeats warrior bands and Blue Coats suffered alike - their very own boogeyman. The warrior became Reb Stone, bounty hunter.

She'd chosen the name to honor her mother and her mother's mother. Stone for her mother and Rebecca for the grandmother she had never met - only she went by Reb. People tended to pay less attention to the fact that she was a woman if her name did not bring it immediately to their attention. That lesson she had learned from her mother before Rachel had crossed the Divide to join Honiahaka.

It hadn't been too difficult to hide once she'd found some clothing. And after capturing her first outlaw, not many people felt the need to heckle or make fun anymore. She was able to afford better fitting clothing and a gun. Soon, Reb Stone was a name known throughout the Territories as a fearsome bounty hunter. She never turned down an opportunity to catch an outlaw, and her kills and captures were quite... creative... to say the least.

Finally, after more than two full cycles of seasons, Honaw started hearing regular reports about this bounty hunter. More and more often the People would hear about the individual known as "Stone Cold" and Honaw began to pay attention to the rumors as they abounded. He eventually figured they *had* to be about Koko Kanti, given the descriptions he heard about the hunter, but was unable to form a more firm hypothesis, until....

Honaw went to Odahingum, telling him of the rumors he had been hearing and the possible conclusion he had reached. The chief's eyes widened as he listened - he had wondered how Koko Kanti had managed to completely disappear. It had never occurred to him that she might go to live among the white man. After a brief discussion, Odahingum agreed to Honaw's idea and sent him to the trading post with orders to find out what was going on.

Honaw left with little explanation to anyone - he took a few furs to trade, but otherwise he went empty-handed. He made good time to the trading post and when he arrived, he sought out the scouts. Indian scouts were hated among the tribes for their betrayal to their clans, but they could provide useful information. Honaw knew they tended to fall into two categories - those willing to help their native brothers to ease the guilt they felt for being a scout and those who would take greatest advantage of them because of the disdain they themselves received from everyone around them.

Honaw found one who was willing to act as an interpreter as well as give him the knowledge he needed. Hassun translated the shopkeeper's words and Honaw played his part, though he understood both the English and the native tongue Hassun spoke - unknown to the Native scout. That was how he knew he could trust Hassun - the scout did not try to cheat or take advantage, and for that Honaw was grateful. He had no desire to remain in this white man's territory any longer than was absolutely necessary. When they were done negotiating, Hassun gave Honaw his money and led him over to the saloon and into a dark corner where they could talk without interruption.

"What is your real reason for coming here, Honaw?" Hassun asked quietly once the girl had left the bottle on the table and sauntered away. "No one comes to the trading post with so little unless there is another objective."

"I am looking for information," Honaw replied honestly. Hassun nodded.

"I thought as much. About...?"

"The one they call Reb Stone... the bounty hunter."

Hassun's dark eyes widened in surprise. "That is unexpected," he said softly. "What do you want to know?"

"Tell me about her."

Hassun looked at Honaw for a long moment then nodded his head. "She showed up here two... maybe three years, um... cycles ago. She rode a magnificent black stallion - that horse is still the envy of many in the Territories but no one goes near him but Reb. He won't let anyone else approach close enough to touch, much less ride." A beat. "She was wearing the oddest ragtag assortment of clothing I had ever seen, but by the end of her second week, she had captured her first outlaw and was able to buy better. No one knows where she came from or what her background is. Some say she is a savage come straight from the white man's hell. Others say she is a half-breed with a score to settle and still others think she is a white woman with a past of some sort." Hassun shrugged.

"Whatever the truth is, only she knows. She is considered somewhat odd - a woman who wears man's clothing and does man's work, but she has come to be well-respected in this town and throughout the Territories. She catches her man, pays her few debts, lives quietly. When she is in town, she usually comes in for a drink and a card game if there is one." Hassun chuckled lightly and Honaw arched a questioning brow in his direction.

"When Reb first arrived here, she was as green as anyone I had met - some of the men here tried to take advantage of that fact. It wasn't long before the girls here took her under their wings and taught her a few things. Soon she was beating the white men at their own game, and now she looks after the girls here when she is in town.

Honaw blinked. He wasn't stupid, nor was he na´ve. He knew what the girls in the saloon did for a living. Surely Koko hadn't.... Hassun read the look and shook his head.

"Reb never became a lady here, Honaw, though she could have had men lining up out the door for a chance with her if she had dressed differently. She is too much like the men for them to want to bed her. She does keep a room upstairs though; the girls set aside one for her after she called out an outlaw who had been harassing them - beating on them and such. The Blue Coats did nothing, so Stone Cold did. Man was dead before he had a chance to draw."

Honaw nodded. That was much like the Koko Kanti he remembered - Protector and Defender. She looked out for the girls here much like she had Donoma Chepi for so long. It was almost second nature to her to do so.

Hassun watched the different emotions play out in Honaw's eyes; his face remained impassive. The scout wondered if this warrior knew more about who Reb Stone really was and knew for a certainty that even if he did, he was likely not going to share the information he had. This was about something personal Hassun would be willing to bet his horse.

Honaw brought his dark eyes back from whatever distance they had traveled and pinned Hassun to his seat with their sharpness. "Describe her to me," he demanded.

"Tall," Hassun answered without hesitation. "Almost my height and yours. Broad shoulders, thin waist; long dark hair with a few small braids on the left side of her face; darkish skin - not nearly as brown as ours, but darker than most of the white men here; full lips, high cheekbones, glittering blue eyes that turn hard and cold when she is angry. It is how she got the name 'Stone Cold'."

Honaw nodded. He was now certain that Koko Kanti was indeed the bounty hunter known as Reb Stone. The question was - what could he do about it? Despite everything, he could not force her to return home - that would cause more problems than it could solve, and there was every likelihood that Donoma would not appreciate his interference. He sighed. It shouldn't be this difficult, but then if Koko had been a little braver or Donoma a little less innocent they never would have been in this situation to begin with.

"Is she here now?" Honaw finally asked. Hassun shook his head.

"No. She left several days ago after another wanted man."

"And when do you anticipate her return?"

"We do not," Hassun stated bluntly. "She will return when she returns or she will not. There is no timetable for catching outlaws."

Honaw bowed his head. He had expected as much but he had hoped....

"May I ask...?" Hassun started, but stopped at the warring looks of fierceness and despair in Honaw's expression. "I am sorry. Could I perhaps relay a message?"

"No thank you, my friend. I would be happy for her to have no knowledge of my presence here."

"It shall be as you wish," Hassun stated before a clamor outside drew his attention to the window. "However, it looks as though the Blue Coats are preparing for some sort of action. Come with me. You want to be well gone from here before they head out."

Honaw glanced at Hassun's face and refrained from asking the question that was just on the tip of his tongue. If he wanted the scout to respect his need for privacy in some things, he would need to do the same in return... no matter how compelling his curiosity.

They reached the small stable where Honaw had housed his pony at Hassun's directive and Hassun stuck his hand out. Honaw did not hesitate, but offered him a warrior's salute before climbing on the back of the mustang.

"May the Great Spirit watch over you in your travels, Honaw."

"And you, Hassun. Thank you for the information."

Hassun nodded. "I hope you find that which you seek."

"I have all I came for. The rest is not for me to decide." And with that, he turned his horse and headed back home to the Plains.

When he arrived at the encampment, Honaw kept his own counsel for the better part the day, spending time with his family and catching up on the things he had missed during his short trip. It wasn't until after the evening meal, when darkness had settled and the children were in bed that Honaw was summoned to Odahingum's campfire.

Takoda was also there and Honaw nodded in respect to both before he took his place and told them of what he had learned and what he suspected. When he was done, he was dismissed and Takoda went back to his own home. He never knew if it came up for discussion again between the two leaders, but he knew he had done all he could. What remained was up to them... or Koko.

As time passed, he realized there was little they could do either. Nothing was going to change what had happened and unless Koko decided to return of her own volition, Donoma at least would never truly find peace. And he suspected the same would be true for Koko Kanti as well.


Movement from the fur bundle drew Honaw's attention from the past back to the present. Then he figured out what was happening and wavered between embarrassment, concern and chagrin. He understood why Donoma was struggling out of her clothing - fever of the magnitude Koko was suffering from generally killed and the only way to prevent it was to break the fever quickly while keeping the body temperature from dropping too drastically and allowing a chill to set in. To tell the truth, he had been a bit surprised Donoma had climbed into the furs fully clothed, but had put it down to embarrassment of getting undressed in front of her eldest brother. The modesty was not unexpected given her age, but it also went hand in hand with the withdrawal she had initiated when Koko had left their lives.

He stood, subtly reminding Donoma he was still nearby if she required assistance, but distant enough that she would reveal nothing to him accidentally. When the movement halted, Honaw crept closer to the fire to check on them.

Donoma heard him approach and opened her eyes, unable to hide the gut-wrenching exhaustion she felt. Honaw reached a hand down and smoothed the blonde hair from her face.

"What can I do for you, Donoma Chepi?"

She shook her head resignedly. "There is nothing to be done now but wait, Hestatanemo. I have done all I know to do for her. The rest...." She let her voice trail off and bit her lip, then sucked in a deep breath and continued. "She started shaking with chills," explaining why her clothing was now bundled under her head. "If I can get her warm again, I will need you to take her back to my tent. Staying out here in the wind is not helping, but I cannot risk the trip until her temperature stabilizes."

Honaw gave her a small smile, letting Donoma know he understood her concerns. He wondered what she was really thinking... and feeling. As far as he knew, she still did not know the real reason Koko had disappeared from their lives - although, none of them actually *knew* for sure, but certainly a large number of the tribe, especially the elders, suspected - nor was she aware of the motivation behind his brief trip into the white man's world.

He let his glance run over Koko's still, pale form, then dropped his thick robe over them to add to their warmth. He shivered in the cold air but a look from him kept Donoma from scolding. Instead, she smiled weakly at him.

"Thank you, Honaw."

"Nahko'e left me a water skin. Let me heat it here near the fire; that should help some as well." She nodded her agreement and closed her eyes, and Honaw headed back to the skin. Donoma listened to his almost silent passage away from them and then his immediate return. He placed the skin on one of the warm stones around the fire and held his hand out to the warmth for a moment.

"Stay," she bade him before he could turn away from the flames.


"Things have changed, Honaw. Whatever else I need to do for Koko Kanti will have to be taken care of in the privacy of my home." She paused to wrap her arms tighter around the warrior that was still shaking with cold in her embrace, feeling them lessen slightly. "I am afraid the wind and dropping temperature will undo all the good I have done if we remain longer than necessary and I will not allow you to catch a chill because of your generosity and caring."

Honaw nodded. He would not admit to the relief he felt sitting near the warmth of the fire. He wasn't warm through yet, but at least he was no longer in danger of icing over. "How is she?"

Donoma couldn't shrug very well, given the position she was in, but the look in her eyes told Honaw quite a bit. "I do not know, Hestatanemo. She has to want to heal and I do not know if that will is there."

"She is a warrior, ka'eskone. Her will is strong."

"I hope you are right, Honaw," not disagreeing with his words though her tone was doubtful. Another shiver passed from Koko to Donoma and Donoma held her even tighter. She closed her eyes and let her thoughts turn to the warrior she now held safely in her arms. She remembered the first time Koko had held her like this - when Donoma had learned firsthand the dangers of freezing chills and skyrocketing fever.


That winter had been harsher than in cycles previously and so much time was spent simply trying to get through it. It snowed and stormed with fierceness and regularity, even in the southern camp - keeping the People locked in their homes to stay warm. On the rare days when the sun shone, the entire tribe was happy to get out and simply breathe fresh air and soak up the weak sunshine.

It was Donoma's seventh winter, and Koko had just turned fifteen seasons. Already she was a warrior making a name and reputation for herself - carrying on Honiahaka's legacy with pride. More and more of her time was spent fighting and training, and though she did try to keep her promise to Donoma to spend time together every day, it was not like it had been in the beginning. So Donoma found herself more and more on her own, especially on the clear days.

Rachel spent as much time as she could with Donoma, having found her to be an apt and agile pupil, but it was clear Donoma missed her time with Koko. What Donoma didn't know was that Koko missed her time with Donoma equally, and was doing everything in her power to get that time back. But her skills as a warrior were called upon more and more and even in the midst of winter, she was consistently called upon to take on various adult responsibilities when the weather was nice enough to be out.

On one such day, she was up and gone before daylight, and Donoma - angry that she was being left behind again, struck out on her own without a word to either her parents or her bothers. It was only when Rachel came by for Donoma's reading lessons that anyone noticed Donoma was missing. It didn't take long before the entire encampment was searching for her.

In the midst of the searching, Koko and her scouting party returned and she immediately separated from the others, having a very good idea where Donoma would have gone. One of the nice things about being in a stationary encampment was that they had found a few places they liked to go when they were out alone. Koko suspected Donoma had gone to one of them.

Honaw followed her, trusting Koko knew more about Donoma than anyone else and knowing she had sworn to protect her. The first two places, closest to the camp, were empty and they were well on their way to the third when Koko heard Donoma's voice whimpering.

She stopped and called out, "Donoma? Donoma Chepi - where are you, ka'eskone?" No answer, save the whimpering sound Koko could barely make out. She motioned to Honaw who nodded his head and they moved more slowly, circling in opposite directions towards the sound. After a moment, Koko cried out in relief and Honaw came running to her. Donoma was curled up into a small ball, shivering and shaking so hard she was unaware of Koko's presence. Her jaw was clenched to keep her teeth from chattering, allowing only the smallest sounds to escape.

Koko put a hand on Donoma, alarmed by the paleness of her skin and the heat that ran beneath it. She scooped Donoma into her arms and Honaw wrapped his fur robe over the child before they started back to the camp as quickly as they could manage. Koko didn't even slow down when they reached the camp, but went straight into her tent and placed Donoma on her bedding closest to the fire. As quickly as she could, she stripped Donoma's wet clothing from her body and tucked her under the furs.

A word to Honaw brought the fire to almost roaring in the small space and Koko stripped herself and crawled in beside Donoma to share heat. Honaw placed a couple water skins near the fire to heat at Koko's directive, then he sat back to wait. For a while, they were the only ones in the camp, but as others began to return, he stepped out to greet them, thrilled he had good news to share.

Takoda immediately walked into Koko's home, eager to check on them both and pleased to see that Koko was doing everything that could be done. Then he left them alone even though he kept a vigil just outside in case he was needed. The night had passed slowly, but as a new day dawned, Donoma's eyelashes fluttered open, still slightly glazed with fever but at least she was awake and in her right mind.


"Good morning, ka'eskone. How do you feel?"

"Tired... sweaty. Why are we naked?"

"We had to warm you up and break your fever. What were you doing out near the water alone?"

"Looking for you... but I got lost. I wanted to find you so we could play. I miss playing with you." She tried to pout but instead yawned widely and closed her eyes.

"I know, ka'eskone. I miss it too, but I have to be an adult now... at least most of the time," the last bit whispered. Donoma didn't respond, having fallen back to sleep. Koko tightened her arms and closed her eyes as well. They would have to work something out to keep this from happening again, trying to come up with a solution everyone would be happy with.

Chapter VIII

"Honaw?" Donoma asked quietly as she felt the chills in Koko's body begin to settle into lesser tremors. Quite some time had passed and Honaw thought he could just see the sun beginning to edge over the horizon. Donoma was wearing a distant smile that made Honaw's brow arch in question.

"She is doing better?"

"Slightly, I think... I hope." Donoma watched the confusion wash over his countenance at her expression. "I was remembering the first time I learned of this technique."

"You remember that?" Honaw asked with surprise. "You were so young and it was a terribly traumatic experience for you... for all of us. I was so very glad we found you."

"I was never worried about being found," Donoma stated with conviction. "Koko had promised to protect me; I knew she would find me. I did not intend to run away or get lost. I was simply angry that we were never allowed to be together... that the elders wanted her to always be an adult instead of being my friend and playmate. They kept her so busy it was hard for her to keep the promise she made to me - a promise they were well aware of."

Honaw smiled. "I remember. Odahingum was less than happy when she laid out her demands after finding you that day."

Donoma couldn't stop the small chuckle that rippled across her belly in remembrance. "I know; he glared at me for a full moon after that. But I did not much mind... I had Koko again and they could not take her from me. Besides, he is very fortunate that I was too young to make demands of my own."

An awkward silence fell as Honaw pondered her words and debated on the best way to proceed. "Why?" he finally blurted out. She looked up at him and frowned, her brow furrowing deeply. He sighed and moved to sit closer so that the fire no longer separated them, but where the warmth of the flames still reached him. He clasped his hands together and sighed.

"I am not criticizing, ka'eskone. I am trying to understand." He looked down at his hands and sighed again before looking back at her, finding it oddly endearing to see her wrapped around Koko Kanti so possessively. Always there had been something between them - it was plain for everyone to see if they but looked. But even now Honaw freely confessed that it was beyond his knowledge and understanding and felt that probably most of the tribe felt the same. Now he had to explain to Donoma when he wasn't certain he could explain it to himself. He cleared his throat softly.

"You found them - you brought them home - you became her warrior advisor. Donoma... you were a five-year-old child then. How... why?"

Donoma closed her eyes again and tightened her hold on Koko's still warming body. It was a question no one had ever dared voice before and one that she really didn't have a reason for except....

"I knew, Honaw. I just knew. She came to me in a dream the night before we found them - searching for something... asking for help. I knew she would be important to me... I knew she would be my friend."

"And you needed that." A statement.

"So much," Donoma said quietly. "I was always alone, Honaw... always different. Koko and Rae'l changed that for me."

Honaw smiled. "I think Odahingum realized that once he resolved his anger with you after that little episode. You always had time to be together when Koko was not away fighting."

"And despite everything we had been, when all was said and done, she left me alone anyway," Donoma added sadly and the pain on her face made the conversation die. Honaw was no nearer to understanding how Donoma knew about Koko Kanti or why she became her warrior advisor... to say nothing of the deeper questions that still plagued him. But one look at her expression kept his mouth shut - some things would always be too personal to share.

Honaw felt the presence before he heard it and turned to see Takoda and Litonya waiting at the edge of the clearing where he had waited for part of the night. With a look in Donoma's direction, he rose from the fire and walked back to them, shivering in the cold morning air. Litonya looked at him disapprovingly until she realized where his coat had gone and nodded her head in acceptance.

"How are they?" Litonya asked when he drew near them. Honaw shrugged.

"Donoma thinks Koko might be slightly better. Her chills seem to have dissipated to almost nil. Her main concern now seems to be stabilizing Koko's temperature so we can move her back indoors. After that...." He shrugged again.

"And how is Donoma?"

"Closed off. Right now she is focused on getting Koko healed, but eventually they are going to have to talk - if only to one another. I am not sure what this is going to do to her."

"You go back to camp, Honaw," Takoda instructed. "I will wait with Donoma Chepi."

"No, Neho'e. I promised Donoma that only I would remain. Koko Kanti would not wish to be seen as weak by so many that she counted as allies and friends among her People. Whatever we perceive to be her transgressions against Donoma, Donoma is the one now trying to protect her. We can do no less than honor her wishes."

Takoda nodded reluctantly. What Honaw said was true, but that did not make him any happier. "We will prepare Donoma Chepi's dwelling to receive them as soon as they are ready to return. Do you require anything?"

"Only to return to the fire. If Nahko'e wishes to remain, she can notify you when we are ready to return."

Takoda acknowledged his agreement with a slight bow and turned back towards the village. He more than anyone else worried about the effect this unforeseen incident would have on his only daughter. And it occurred to him to wonder why this had gone unforeseen. Surely if they had needed warning about anything, Koko Kanti's arrival should have been at the top of the list.

He wandered back into the camp and every eye focused its gaze in his direction, looking for some word. Takoda shook his head. "There has been very little change overnight," he reported aloud. "I am going to prepare Donoma's dwelling to receive them when they are ready to return." His sons' wives moved unhesitatingly to help him and the rest of the camp returned to its normal morning routine. The only difference was the sense of expectation in the air.

When Honaw returned to the fire, Donoma blinked her eyes open slowly. "I need to dress, Honaw, but I need your help. I do not want to bring my cold clothing into the warm nest I have created here. Can you hold them to the fire to warm them for me?"

Honaw nodded and eased the bundle from beneath her head. As quickly as was humanly possible, he warmed them and passed them to Donoma who struggled to don them beneath the heavy furs without disturbing Koko too much in the process. Honaw dutifully kept his back turned until he heard Donoma clear her throat.

"It is safe to turn around now, Hestatanemo. I think we can take her back to the camp now. Anything else that can be done for her I can do there."

Honaw nodded and signaled the intent to Litonya who disappeared without a sound. Honaw crushed out the remains of the fire while Donoma prepared her patient, tucking the blankets and furs around her as much as possible and removing Honaw's heavy robe. She maintained a light touch on Koko until Honaw knelt to pick her up. Then Donoma broke contact and stepped back to allow Honaw to stand and a cry was wrenched from the warrior's pale lips. Honaw froze, afraid to move for fear of doing Koko further injury. Donoma moved to Koko's side, gently sandwiching her between them and brushing the sweat-darkened hair back off her forehead.

"Koko, it is all right. Honaw is going to take you to my home, but I cannot stay beside you. Listen to the sound of my voice, Nutta. Listen and it will keep you safe. It will guide you back to me," Donoma continued, heedless of Honaw's listening ears and dropped jaw. She kept up a litany of conversation for the duration of the short trip. All eyes and ears followed them until they disappeared into Donoma's tent and watched as Honaw emerged almost immediately.

He headed back to the water to retrieve the robes and furs that were left behind, then stopped when he saw his wife and mother walking back from that direction with their arms full. He wondered how he could have missed passing them, then realized after what Donoma had just unconsciously revealed in front of him, he probably would not have noticed a battalion of Blue Coats.

When had things become so between them? he wondered. And if Donoma spoke the truth, why indeed had Koko Kanti left Donoma behind to become part of the white man's world? He knew Koko felt for Donoma... he had seen it in her words and deeds, but most importantly, he had seen it in her eyes. The real question was - what had he seen and was it real or imagined?

Honaw relieved the two of their burdens and turned back to enter Donoma's abode. Litonya immediately went to her fire to stir the cornmeal she had cooking for their morning meal and added a small pot of broth, knowing Koko would need the nourishment it provided. Honaw stepped into the tent and what he saw broke his heart.

Donoma sat curled up beside Koko, hands gently combing through her dark hair, continuing the conversation she had started by the waters' edge. In an effort to give them as much privacy as he could, Honaw turned his back deliberately and placed the furs neatly on the other side of the small space. Then he walked out without a word, knowing Donoma would call him if she needed him again.

He walked directly to Takoda's fire, not waiting for his father to invite him before he wearily took a seat. The shaman didn't speak; merely handed him a bowl of meal and waited for Honaw to devour half the contents before offering him a skin to wash it down. Then he waited patiently for Honaw to finish before clearing his throat and addressing him.

"You look burdened, my son. Has something more happened?"

Honaw chewed his last bite slowly, giving himself time to consider his answer carefully. What he knew, or strongly suspected now, was not his knowledge to share. And yet he highly doubted Donoma would confide the truth to anyone... possibly not even Koko herself. Honaw wondered when and how things had become so difficult and entangled. And for a moment, he wished for a time when Donoma was still a child and misunderstandings between them simply were not.

Eventually he faced Takoda and shrugged. "I do not know, Neho'e. I do not know."

Takoda wisely refrained from asking more questions, knowing Honaw would reveal no confidences. It was one of his most endearing and frustrating traits. "Well, perhaps the Great Spirit will allow us a resolution to this matter sooner rather than later. Koko Kanti's arrival here has upset a great many things." He shook his head. "There are times when I find myself wishing for the days when she and Rae'l first arrived here. Life was much simpler then."

Honaw smiled wryly. "I was thinking the same thing."

Litonya nodded her agreement but didn't speak aloud, choosing instead to lift the pot of broth from the heat and take it to Donoma's tent. She crossed to the doorway and entered without announcing herself, and in doing so, saw something that brought a tear to her eye.

Donoma had fallen asleep with her head on Koko's shoulder - not unexpected considering she had been tending to the warrior all night after a spirit quest that had lasted three days. What was unexpected and precious was the fact that even in her unconscious state, Koko held tightly to Donoma as she had always done. Litonya sighed and placed the small pot near the heat to keep warm. Then she exited the way she had come and headed back to tend her own fire. Things had been so much easier before Koko had left, she thought with a silent, mental sigh and loosened the lock on her memories.


Things settled into a slightly different routine after Donoma's experience. Koko volunteered to mind her more during the day so they would always have time to spend together. It wasn't always in play - sometimes they sat and talked together; others they took walks on the wide-open plain. Still other times, Koko would teach Donoma new skills... such as swimming and hiding and tracking.

In return, Donoma spoke to Koko about the things she could see that were beyond the pale of mere human sight. She taught her to make a simple bead bracelet and braid flowers and chase butterflies. It was a good balance for the two of them and all in all in was a good arrangement for the entire tribe.

As she relaxed and became a happier child, Donoma's gift became stronger and more focused. She was able to advise Koko in her efforts to protect the clan and as a result, the tribe knew a measure of peace and contentment for a while.

Donoma kept up her lessons with Rachel, far surpassing those around her with her knowledge of the white man's history and culture. There wasn't any real need for it that Takoda could see, but the child enjoyed it and it gave Koko the time she needed to take care of her warrior responsibilities. And Litonya enjoyed the time as well - many times she would sit with Rachel and Donoma and listen, but sometimes she took the time to work on special projects away from the lessons.

On the occasions that Koko had to be away for a few days, Litonya took pains to spend extra time with her daughter, even if all they did was sit silently together and work on beadwork. At first they had been simple projects - single line bracelets and necklaces, much as Donoma taught Koko, but as time passed they became more complex in their design. Sometime after her tenth spring, Donoma had chosen to make a bracelet for Koko, intricate enough to showcase Koko's crest of a screaming eagle flying over the moon. Before her twelfth spring, Donoma created a chest plate for Koko to wear for protection on the battlefield of the same theme and worked painstakingly on it every spare minute.

Then came Donoma's first bleeding and she was reluctant to give Koko her gift, her newly discovered hormones making her unsure of her place in Koko's life. As a child she had never questioned that place or her right to be there, but now Donoma felt like a mass of confusion. Her visions became more erratic and her frustration grew exponentially. Finally, Koko took matters into her own hands.

"Where are you going this time?" Donoma demanded petulantly, watching as Koko patiently packed a small bag of trail rations before retrieving her blanket, glad that it was summer and warm enough that they would not require furs or a fire.

"*WE*," motioning between them, "are going out onto the prairie - away from the noise and excitement of the camp. It is time you were able to know the peace that time alone can bring, and I think you need it. Something troubles you, ka'eskone, and I think this will help clear your mind."

"Don't call me that," Donoma snapped. "I am no longer a little child."

Koko's expression saddened. "I am aware of that, Donoma," she pronounced carefully. "I did not mean anything untoward by it. It is what I have always called you... a sign of affection for my very best friend, but I will refrain if it offends you."

"Am I still?" Donoma asked quietly.

Koko frowned. "Are you still what?"

"Am I still your very best friend?"

"Always," Koko replied without hesitation. "You will always be my very best friend, Donoma, as well as my warrior advisor. Nothing will ever change that."

"Even when I am acting like a little child?"

Koko smiled. "Even then, ka'eskone. One day, sooner than you expect, but much farther away than you desire, you will be a woman - with the responsibilities and expectations of an adult contributing to the good of the tribe. You will have to look for time to have to yourself and there will not be much to spend with me. And you will still be my very best friend and advisor. But even when we are both gray and bent with old age, I will still think of you as ka'eskone."

Donoma huffed. "I am never going to catch up to you, am I?"

"No, but in a few more cycles, it will not matter. And for me... it does not matter now. You need to understand that, Donoma Chepi. Your age has never been a factor for me in our friendship." She shrugged. "The Great Spirit brought you into my life for a reason. It is not for me to question."

"Me either," Donoma agreed. "I just wish it was not so confusing."

"It is that way for all as they move from childhood to adult. It is easier for some than others, but it is still a very difficult time to live through. You must take comfort from the fact that all those before you survived and flourished."

"Like you?"

"Like me," Koko said with a smile.

"Good. I want to flourish now."

Koko laughed. "You have been flourishing for a number of years, ka'eskone. This is just a rough patch. Now, go gather your things and come back here when you are ready to leave. Bring enough for a few days, but only what you are willing to carry."

Unexpectedly, Donoma threw her arms around Koko's neck, hugging her tightly before scampering out of her tent. Rachel came in once Donoma left.

"She was certainly excited."

Koko smiled. "Yes, Nahko'e, she was."

"Be careful, my daughter. She is at a tender and vulnerable age. Do not take advantage of that."

Koko's eyes burned blue fire. "I resent that, Nahko'e. I have *never* taken advantage of my friendship with Donoma Chepi. I have done nothing but be her friend and accepted her friendship in return."

"And loved her and protected her for most of her life. This is a very confusing time for her."

"I remember, Nahko'e. It was not easy for me, either."

Rachel smiled gently and brushed Koko's braids back into her loose hair. "I know, Koko. But your best friend was not an adult warrior who meant the world to you."

"No," Koko agreed wryly. "My best friend was a five-year-old child that meant the world to me with a gift she still has not realized the complete potential of." She sighed. "Nahko'e... I do understand your concern. But I swore an oath to Donoma to protect her; I would do nothing to betray that."

"I know, Koko. I just worry... for both of you. It is in my nature to do so and as your mother, it is my prerogative."

Donoma chose that moment to run back in, a small pack on her back and her arms full. "I am ready, Koko. Can we leave now?"

Koko lifted her own pack and kissed her mother's cheek. "We can leave now," she assured Donoma and extended her hand. "Come... I have a special place chosen for our adventure." They exchanged smiles, heading out without a backwards glance; Rachel watched until they were out of sight. Then she turned back to her home, picking up the leather she had been sewing for Koko and resumed her work.

Chapter IX

The air was hot and smelled of sweetness and earth and manure. It was an odd combination of smells and made Donoma wrinkle up her nose in surprise. Koko caught her expression out of the corner of her eye and grinned.

"Not what you expected?"

Donoma thought about it a moment. "I am not sure what I expected. I never noticed it quite as much in camp. There are always so many scents there... so many sounds. I have never really taken the time to notice them or try to separate them out individually. It is simply part of the tapestry of life."

"It is indeed, and when it changes, you take notice. This trip is about giving you the opportunity to notice. Far enough away where it is only you and me and the sky and the earth. No other sounds to distract us; no one else asking for our attention," Koko stated as she led them down a slight embankment to a tiny creek burbling with life. "Except maybe for the fish," she added with a smile, "but I am happy to give them attention as they will provide us with nourishment."

Donoma crossed her arms and glared at Koko. "You brought me out here so you could go fishing," she accused flatly. Koko's head swung around quickly, just catching a hint of a twinkle in the green eyes before Donoma endeavored to frown fiercely.

"Yes," Koko agreed with a serious countenance. "I did. I figured I could use you for bait," watching as Donoma's jaw dropped in shock before she realized Koko was teasing. She launched herself at the warrior, expecting to be caught and looking at Koko in shock when they ended up flat on the ground.

"You were supposed to catch me!"

"I probably should have stopped laughing first," Koko wheezed. Donoma stood and put her hands on her hips.

"I know where you live, Koko Kanti. You cannot hide from me when I decide how to get even with you."

This time Koko burst into gales of laughter. *This* was the precocious child she had watched grow up into the awkward woman child Donoma was now. Koko only hoped that this outing would help Donoma find her balance again; she wanted Donoma to know the beauty of growing up and becoming an adult without the pain and awkwardness she herself had felt. Admittedly, their circumstances were completely different and yet many of the growing pains were identical. And Koko wished to spare Donoma as much of the ugliness of that as she could. Hence this trip.

"I will look forward to it, ka'eskone. Now, find a spot to place your blanket and we will set up camp. Then we can do whatever you would like, or I will go fishing and you can have a bit of time to simply be if you would like."

Donoma blinked. She wasn't sure what she had been expecting - more lessons, perhaps. Most of her time with Koko now was spent learning in one capacity or another, though Koko always managed to make it less work and more fun than anything. Still, she had never expected the luxury of having time to do what she wanted. Donoma knew what the bleeding meant- it meant she was on the cusp of adulthood and there was very little time left for the games of childhood. Perhaps that would explain her mood swings and her lack of vision lately.

She stood contemplating these thoughts so long her stillness caught Koko's attention. She crossed the short distance between them, laying a hand on Donoma's shoulder and squeezing gently when she jumped in surprise.

"Are you all right, ka'eskone?"

Donoma smiled. "I am fine, Koko. Just thinking. Anymore I try to stand still so I do not disturb anything while I am processing for fear of jarring something loose," she added wryly. Koko chuckled.

"All part of growing up, Donoma. It will get better, I promise and things will return to normal."

"But they will not be what they were before," Donoma said sagely.

"No, but you may find that you like the new even better. You have many new experiences still to look forward to, my friend. You should relish each and every opportunity you are given."

"And if I liked things the way they were?" Donoma asked softly, walking away from Koko and picking up her blanket to lay it on one side of the small fire pit Koko had built for their preparation.

Koko sighed. "Life is about change, ka'eskone. Nothing can stop that. It is how we react to those changes that will determine our satisfaction... our happiness. You do not want to remain a child forever, do you?"

"Sometimes," Donoma answered honestly. "But sometimes not," she continued. Donoma looked at the water, then back at Koko who watched her with knowing, understanding eyes. "Do you mind if I walk for a while. I will not go too far, but...." Her voice trailed off and Koko nodded.

"Go ahead, ka'eskone. You need but call out for me if you need something. Otherwise, your time is your own."

Donoma turned and wrapped her arms around Koko's waist, hugging her fiercely for a long moment before releasing her grip. "Thank you, Koko. Nayeli," before she turned and headed away from the tiny campsite without looking back.

Koko watched her go for long moments before she turned back to the water. "I love you too, ka'eskone," she whispered.


Donoma blinked her eyes open, disoriented to find herself in her tent - the noise level around her indicating it was full daylight. She lay perfectly still, trying to figure out why she was still in bed - her dream had been so real and she could still feel the way it had felt to hug Koko so tightly. Then her other senses came into play and she recognized the scent surrounding her and the deep even breathing and steady heartbeat of Koko Kanti beneath her ear and the memory of the previous night and early morning came back to her. She started to sit up, only to have Koko's arm tighten around her.

Donoma sighed. She didn't need this right now - she was still violently angry with Koko on so many levels - not the least of which was her nerve to return to them to die without so much as a by your leave. But Donoma couldn't deny the comfort she felt in her very core being at being held so protectively in the unconscious embrace.

Sighing, she eased from Koko's arms, pushing her unruly hair away from her face and stepping to the doorway of her home and looking around the subdued campsite. She breathed in deeply, noting the different scents and sounds that made up her home, glad they were still in the winter camp. Whatever ill feeling and anger she harbored towards Koko Kanti, she did not want the warrior to die... especially if there was something she could do to prevent it.

She watched as the men and women of the clan went about their business even though many of them turned questioning gazes in her direction. She looked for Honaw, then realized he must have gone home to get some rest after spending the night watching over her and Koko. Donoma caught Takoda's eye and he excused himself from the chief, rising and walking towards her with slow, deliberate steps.

Takoda reached her side and stepped into the doorway, easing the loose hair from her face cupping her face in his large hand. "You looked tired, my daughter. You need rest."

"I will rest, Neho'e - when there is nothing more I can do. However, nature is screaming rather loudly at the moment. Will you stand here and watch her for me, Neho'e. I do not want to leave her alone."

"How is she, ka'eskone?"

Donoma sighed - a question she was really not ready to answer yet. "I think she is over the worst of it, Neho'e. I hope she is. I think it will depend on what happened, how long she was without care and how well she was before it happened. I have done what I know to do for her. Now it is time for me to watch and wait."

Takoda smiled gently. "The hard part," he commented wisely.

Donoma nodded. "Indeed. I will return in a moment."

Takoda nodded, then turned his attention to their erstwhile patient. Why are you here, Koko Kanti? What made you return to us? He let his mind wander back to the outing she had taken Donoma on after Donoma's first bleeding. That trip had been a godsend for his daughter and all she had talked about for months afterwards. He smiled at the memory.


When Donoma had arrived back at camp, the sun was just touching the horizon and Koko sat cross-legged on her blanket with her eyes closed. They fluttered open as Donoma approached and Donoma sighed.

"You heard me, didn't you? Even as quiet as I was being."

Koko nodded. "Yes, but I have been listening for a long time, ka'eskone. I could recognize your footsteps in a crowd."

Donoma's eyes widened. "Could you really?" she asked wonderingly. Koko nodded. "How?"

"You have a distinctive rhythm when you walk - a smooth, rolling gait that is different from the rest of the females in the clan."

"Of course it is," Donoma griped. "Everything else about me is different... why not the walk?"

Koko cupped Donoma's chin in her fingers and lifted until their eyes met. "Donoma... ka'eskone - you walk like *I* do... strong and sure like a warrior. The rest of the females walk comfortably, but with a different swagger - one that speaks of softness and nurturing."

Donoma's eyebrows rose to her head. "You can hear nurturing in a walk??"

"Of course," Koko replied with a shrug. "Every trait has a walk... a sound and weight that accompany it. You merely have to listen to learn them."

"Will you teach me?"

Koko smiled. "If you would like to learn; you are a very apt pupil, ka'eskone. You know many things that could make you a formidable enemy or a useful ally... if you ever decided to become a warrior."

Donoma grimaced. "I do not think I would be a very good warrior. I am not even a very good seer these days."

"That is because there are so many things happening to you that have never happened before. It is hard to tell the difference in what is real and what is perceived. But that is all right - it is why we are here. We will find your center again, and when your life is in balance once more, the visions will return and you will be able to interpret them... you will see."

"Do you really think so, Koko Kanti?"

"I know, Donoma Chepi. When I had my first bleeding, I could no longer fight as the warrior I had been trained to be. My balance was off - my focus... gone. My father took me out onto the plains - just the two of us - and he taught me to listen. First to listen outwardly and then to listen in. And I found the part of me that had changed did not make me different from the person I was before - it simply meant I was becoming an adult."

"Were you glad?"

"That I was becoming an adult - yes and no. That things had changed for me... no, not at first. But there was no way to go back, so I had to learn to adjust to the way life was for me after that."

"Was it harder then?" Donoma paused and Koko waited. "It has made things more difficult for me to see... to understand. Sometimes it is as though I cannot see at all."

"It made me fiercer... more ferocious in battle. I took the confusion and the anger and the hurt and channeled it into something I could use. Ask Honaw... he knows when I am bleeding; he and the rest have learned to steer clear because the blood lust runs strongest in me then. I fight as though I am invincible and no one is safe if we are in the midst of battle then. I react solely on instinct and men die painfully if they try to defeat me."

"Well, I do not want to kill anyone. I just want to be me again."

"I am glad you do not want to kill anyone, ka'eskone. I would be more worried if you did as it goes against your nature. But do not fret over such things. We will find that focus again and things will settle for you, I promise. Even if we have to do this over and over until listening becomes a natural part of you, we will find your balance. But I do not think we will need to - you are exceedingly bright, Donoma. And your gift will not stay buried for long."

"I hope not, Koko. I never realized how much a part of me it was until everything became so complicated. I miss it." She crawled into Koko's open arms and held on tightly, relishing the sense of peace and strength she felt emanating from the warrior. Donoma never realized when Koko tucked her into her blanket and kissed her forehead as Litonya did every night before wishing her goodnight. And when morning came, they started working.

It took longer than Koko expected, but much less time than Donoma thought it would, but slowly she was able to focus outside herself and learned to listen to the sounds around her. Then Koko taught her how to separate the sounds... to hear each one individually. Once she could do that, it was easy to tune them all out and listen to her inner voice.

Now if only her inner voice would talk to her.

Koko cautioned her that it might take a little while for her vision to return and insisted that Donoma work on her focus instead of trying so hard to force something that had always come naturally and in its own time. So she decided to teach Donoma the different gaits of the people within the tribe. Koko had no idea how comical that experiment would be. But she would... once they were back in camp and Donoma could see how accurate Koko's impersonations had been.

When she walked as herself, she was able to sneak up on Donoma and laughed when she jumped. Donoma glared at her before shrugging sheepishly, and Koko moved on to other members. After a while, Donoma realized that Koko had been completely correct - every single movement was slightly different... weight, roll, length of step... something to identify the owner.

"What about those you do not recognize? How do you tell friend from foe?"

"Mostly it is safe to assume that if I do not recognize the walk, the person is an enemy... or at least an unknown. If there is stealth to their movement, definitely an enemy. If there is hesitation, simply an unknown. But either circumstance calls for caution until I can determine who they are and what they want." She shrugged. "It keeps me amused and helps keep my skills sharp." She paused. "So, do you feel better, ka'eskone? I know your sight has not yet returned, but it will when it is time."

"I know, Koko, but thank you. I needed this. I will never listen the same way again."

Koko smiled. "No, you will not. And if you ever need silence to listen in, you have but to ask and we will do this again."

"Promise?" Donoma asked wistfully.

"Promise," Koko affirmed. "I need this sometimes too."


"You broke your word to me, Nutta," Donoma said as she finished her morning ablutions, reliving the memories the dream had awakened. She rebraided the small braids that hung down the left side of her face and pushed the remaining loose hair back over her shoulders. "I needed the silence and you were not there to help me find it." She picked up her comb and headed back towards her home. Regardless of her mixed feelings for the situation she currently found herself in, Donoma had a duty to her patient, and Koko's bandages would need changing soon and she needed to be fed again.

Takoda still stood inside just inside her home watching for her; he saw Donoma straighten her shoulders before she was within sight of the main camp. He wondered again what effect Koko's sudden reappearance would have on her life, remembering all too well the devastation that had been done to Donoma's soul at her abrupt departure. He was fairly certain neither of them would survive a second rending - because if Koko caused his daughter that sort of pain again, he and his sons would seek her out and demand vengeance. And Donoma's wishes would no longer be considered.

A hand on his arm brought him out of the red haze of anger he had fallen into. "Neho'e?"

He swallowed his fury and looked at her, patting her arm in reassurance. "What can I do to help you, daughter?" he asked softly.

"Relax, Neho'e. She will not hurt me again... I will not allow it. She is merely a charge in my care, and when she is well, she will move on as all the others have done." He looked at her skeptically, wondering how many times she had rehearsed it since she had recognized Koko as the rider the night before.

"And if she does not wish to leave, ka'eskone?" he asked gently. "This is her home as well, despite the fact that she has been away from us for five cycles of the earth."

"She will not live with me - she will have her own home. And I will adapt."

"Like you did before, daughter?" not unkindly. "Donoma, the loss of her in your life was a very dark time for all of us, but for you especially. I do not wish to see you hurt so again."

"Do not worry, Neho'e. That part of me no longer exists," knowing Honaw would never reveal her slip from the early morning. He would simply set himself to keep a closer eye on her, hoping he would be able to prevent anything else from hurting Donoma as she had been hurt before. "I will be fine," she added, almost convincingly. "Now, have my hestatanemos set up her tent. When she regains her senses, I will have her moved to her own home. Then the rest can worry about what happens to her - I will have done what I could for her."

"Very well, Donoma," Takoda agreed, knowing nothing would change her mind once it had determined the course of action she felt was right. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"

"No Neho'e," she said with a small smile. "I am going to feed her again, and then I will clean her up and change her bandages. There is nothing else we can do but wait for her to awaken."

"And you believe she will?"

"I believe she will if that is her desire. Honaw thinks her will to live is strong. We shall see."

Takoda nodded. "Let me help you," easing Koko into a sitting position so Donoma could slip behind her and placing the small pot of warm broth beside her. Then he stepped out of her dwelling, heading first for his sons to give them instructions and then looking for Litonya to give her the news. This day was shaping up to be as long as the night that had preceded it.

Chapter X

Donoma slowly fed the warm broth to Koko, triggering her swallowing response regularly while struggling to keep her mind blank. Despite the happy memories she had of the growing up years she had spent as Koko's best friend, Donoma's most vivid memory remained the pain and desolation she had felt upon discovering Koko's desertion.

In the midst of her efforts, her second eldest brother Aucaman stepped into her tent to retrieve Koko's belongings he had placed there the night before. Donoma looked up to see who was disturbing her and Aucaman motioned his intentions. Donoma nodded her acceptance and turned her attention back to feeding Koko, knowing the broth would help her heal.

A ruckus by the door drew her attention, favoring her brother with an exasperated glare. He shrugged his apology and gathered the bags again, then muttered under his breath when one bag slipped. It opened when it fell to the ground, scattering several items onto the ground. Aucaman groaned and knelt to pick up the things that had tumbled out.

"Leave them," Donoma ground out hoarsely. Aucaman met her eyes, her tone alerting him to something amiss. Her face was void of color and she held herself stiffly as though in some sort of pain.


"Just take the things you have now and go, Aucaman. You can return for the remainder later."

Aucaman nodded, thinking something was wrong with Koko. He backed out of her home without another word.

Donoma watched him go before she turned her attention to the first object that had cascaded from the saddlebag. She closed her eyes and collected herself, then resumed feeding Koko as though nothing had happened. But she couldn't stop her mind from wandering and without her active permission her memories opened and flowed as though it had happened just yesterday.


The night before Donoma and Koko had returned from their camping experience, they sat together on opposite sides of the fire, gazing at the stars and listening to the sounds of the prairie around them. Without warning, Donoma sat up and moved to her bag, biting her lip before straightening her shoulders and turning back to Koko.

Koko remained reclined, knowing when Donoma was ready to share, she would. Then Donoma was standing beside her and Koko sat up far enough to lean on her elbows. "Ka'eskone?" she asked when Donoma stood silently, hesitation apparent in her very posture. Koko pushed to sit up completely, crossing her legs and letting her arms rest on her knees. Donoma abruptly thrust something into Koko's hand and went back to her own bedroll, plopping down gracelessly and keeping her eyes fastened on the stars.

Koko looked at the bundle in her hands then back at Donoma. Without a word, she shook it out... and her jaw dropped. In her hands she held a chest protector, the beads woven so tightly there was almost no space for air between them. The design on it was familiar - her crest prominent across the front and in one tiny corner there was a fairy with wings the color of Donoma's eyes.

Koko studied the craftsmanship with wonder - she had never seen such delicate and precise beadwork in her life. Surely Donoma had been given help to do such detailed art. Then Koko shook her head - regardless of how it had been accomplished, the fact remained that the work she now held in her hands was exceptional. She stood and crossed to the other side of the fire.

"May I sit?"

Donoma looked at Koko for a long moment, then sat up... gesturing to the end of her blanket and wrapping her arms around her knees. She dropped her eyes to the blanket, admiring the woven design until strong fingers pried her chin from her knees and nervous green eyes met sympathetic blue.

"This is amazing, ka'eskone. Did you create this by yourself?" The blonde head nodded slowly.

"You need something to protect you in battle, Koko. Blood lust and rage will not always safeguard you; this was my answer to that need."

"It is beautiful, Donoma, and expertly crafted. Such incredible detail and workmanship. Thank you for taking the time to make something so special for me." She paused, then continued. "Ka'eskone, did you see something that prompted this? Is something going to happen?"

Donoma took a deep breath. "On this, I have not seen clearly, Koko. But I have seen the possibilities of many things to come - so much blood... so much death." She took a shuddering breath but did not drop her eyes from Koko's and the warrior reached across the small distance that separated them and clasped Donoma's hand gently. "One day, something will happen, and if you do not have something to keep you safe, I fear you will be taken from me."

Koko accepted the gift and the warning in the serious manner in which it was delivered. "I will wear it every time I go into battle, ka'eskone, for as long as I am your protector."

Donoma nodded her head with a satisfied expression. "Then you will be safe forever," she pronounced seriously.

"I will be safe forever," Koko vowed, pulling Donoma into a powerful hug.


Donoma came back from her memories just as she fed the last of the soup to Koko. Satisfied, she slid out from under the heavier body and gently deposited Koko back onto the furs. She checked the warrior for fever, surprised and a little concerned when she couldn't find one but pleased at her deep, even breathing and slight color. It appeared that Honaw was correct about Koko's will to live and a part of Donoma was very glad for that fact. Another part of her tried to put aside the complications this would add to her life... especially if Koko decided to remain here.

A glance outside showed Litonya had water already heating for her and testing it, Donoma found it to be more than warm enough to suit her needs. Litonya caught sight of her and offered to help, but Donoma refused with a shake of her head. She grabbed the water skin and ducked back inside her home, her eyes wandering to Koko's belongings once more before she crossed to the warrior's side.

Koko remained unmoving as Donoma removed her bandages; Donoma grimaced at the slight redness surrounding the deepest wound. Tenderly, she pressed against it, forcing out a small amount of infection and pus. The touch caused Koko to start struggling and Donoma called out frantically, "Honaw!" even as she straddled Koko's long legs to keep her from kicking and twisting.

As though he had been waiting for her summons, Honaw rushed into Donoma's tent a mere moment later. Immediately understanding the situation, he grasped Koko's shoulders and pinned her gently but firmly to the furs beneath her. He tried not to stare at her naked body, but Honaw couldn't help but notice both the beauty and the damage on the form he now held still.

Donoma stayed focused on the injury, watching as the liquid that ran out of it turned from yellow to red. When she was certain all the yellow had run out, she gently flushed the wound with warm water, unknowingly anointing Koko with her tears as well. When the water stopped flowing, Koko resettled and relaxed, much to Donoma's relief.

Donoma looked at Honaw who was kind enough not to call attention to her wet cheeks and red-rimmed eyes which were all that remained as reminders of her unbidden tears. "Thank you, Honaw. She has been so still I did not expect such a violent reaction. Will you ask Nahko'e to heat more water?"

"Of course, ka'eskone. Would you like me to return to help you?"

Donoma bit her lip; she didn't want an audience for this, but she admittedly needed assistance if Koko was going to be physical. Finally, she nodded, knowing she needed to remove the fur still beneath Koko that was now soaked with water and blood. "Please," she whispered.

Honaw bowed his acceptance. "I will return shortly, Donoma," rising from his kneeling position and exiting without another word. Donoma turned her attention back to Koko. Her color was pale again and the dark hair sweaty from her unconscious exertion and what Donoma feared was a new fever.

Honaw returned almost immediately, glancing at the things still laying on the ground, but moving past them quickly to stand beside Donoma and wait for her bidding.

"Can you lift her up for me, Honaw? I need to remove the wet fur."

He didn't answer - just simply knelt and cradled Koko in his arms. Donoma pulled the dirty fur from its place and motioned Honaw to ease Koko into a sitting position. She quickly cleaned the bodily fluids from her back and then Honaw reclined Koko until she was laying flat once more. Donoma covered Koko quickly, not wanting her to catch another chill. Honaw headed back out, but he hesitated by Koko's things.

"Leave them," Donoma commanded once more. Honaw looked at her then, her eyes holding a mixture of pride and pain. He nodded and continued out, knowing Litonya would have the water skin warmed soon.

Donoma moved the bloody bandages to one side with the wet fur and tried to clear her mind - listening as Koko had taught her so long ago. Before she was able to block the outside noises completely, Honaw was entering her home once again, this time carrying another full water skin and accompanied by Litonya.

Donoma's tent was now full to the point of overcrowding and Honaw motioned that he would wait outside the door until he was called for. Litonya knelt on one side of Koko and Donoma on the other and they swiftly cleaned the warrior of the bodily fluids that covered her torso and legs. They pulled the blanket up to cover her once more, though Donoma arranged it to leave the wound open to the air and allow her to monitor it a little more closely. Litonya raised horrified eyes to meet Donoma's.

"I did not realize the damage done to her was so severe. The Great Spirit has blessed you, Donoma - she should not have survived."

Donoma smiled sadly. "Honaw believes it to be her strength of will; I am inclined to agree with him."

"Perhaps," Litonya conceded. "However, you need to rest, my daughter. I will watch...." breaking off at Donoma's emphatic head shake.

"No, Nahko'e. I will watch for now. When she is well enough to be in her own tent, then it will be time for you and the others to watch. Until then, she is under my care."


"Nahko'e... please. Do not argue with me about this. I will do what needs to be done to care for Koko; it is my responsibility. I do not need to be coddled over this," the last added roughly as though wrenched from her soul.

Litonya didn't react except to pat Donoma's forearm. "If you think it is for the best, ka'eskone. If you change your mind, you know where to find me."

"Thank you, Nahko'e. This is something I need to do... I have to do. I believe it is necessary."

"I understand," Litonya assured Donoma, though in truth, she didn't. But she had promised Takoda not to push and to only give help when it was asked for. Taking Honaw's place this time had been at Honaw's request, to spare him the grief of a jealous wife. "I will take the fur and bandages and soak them. It will take them some time to dry in this weather, but at least they will be clean should the need arise to use them again."

"Thank you, Nahko'e," Donoma repeated softly. "It should be a little while before I need to do this again, and if we removed the infection, it will begin to close naturally. I will put something over it soon."

"As you see fit, daughter - your sight has saved many of our warriors. It is one reason there are so many who wish to take you to wife."

Donoma sighed. This certainly wasn't something she wanted to discuss here and now. "Nahko'e," she sighed, "I have no desire to mate with anyone. Now please...." she started, only to have her stomach grumble loudly.

Litonya shook her head. "When was the last time you ate, daughter? Nevermind," she continued before Donoma drew breath to answer. "I will return with some food. I expect you to eat and rest. You will know if Koko Kanti needs tending. Promise me, Donoma."

"Very well, Nahko'e. I will eat and rest. But I do not want to be disturbed."

Litonya nodded her agreement. "I will be right back."

Donoma did not move and true to her word, Litonya returned after a very brief absence. She handed Donoma a full bowl of warm stew and some flatbread and with a final glance at the two of them, Litonya went back to her own home. Honaw moved back to his tent as well, though like many others, he sat quietly outside to await developments and in case he was needed again.

Donoma ate because she had promised her mother she would, but she did so quickly and without tasting the food she consumed. Then finally, having absolved herself of the constraints that had bound her before, Donoma crawled over to the items that still lay scattered at one side of her home and looked at them for a long moment.

There was the bone comb Koko had carved for herself after killing her first buffalo; the knife she had been carrying when she and Donoma had first met; a small book that Donoma remembered as Koko's favorite among the few that Rachel had owned; and of course the chest protector she had created so long ago.

This she took a bit of time to study. It was well cared for and still bore the marks of use - several scratches, a dent or two and what would have been a bullet hole had the beads not been woven so tightly together. As it was, a bit of the bullet remained behind, filling in the gap nicely.

Donoma held it for a long while, her mind recalling each and every single mark, including the bullet hole. That had been made just prior to Rachel's death. She frowned. If she was remembering correctly, then there were no new marks on the armor since Koko had fled. Had she not worn it for protection once she left the tribe? That would explain the mutilation that had been inflicted on her, but it still did not explain the whys - why she was not protected... why someone had done this to her in the first place... and why she had chosen to come back here.

After spending another long moment in thought over questions she could not answer, Donoma shook her head and piled up the belongings together, making a mental note to have Honaw remove them later. They did nothing but bring up memories best left buried and more uncertainty with no obvious resolution. She sighed and checked on Koko once more, relieved when the injury was still dry and her skin was not flushed. Then she moved over to the other side of the tent and promptly fell asleep.


Odahingum made his way to Takoda's fire when he saw Litonya return from Donoma's. The shaman bade the chief to sit and Litonya took her place beside him as well. It was unusual, but not unexpected... given the unusual circumstances they found themselves operating under. Litonya shivered slightly in the cool breeze. Spring was making a slow arrival this year and even though there had been no rain for the past several days, it was still quite cool... especially having come from Donoma's dwelling that was currently overheated by most standards. Takoda offered Litonya his robe and she accepted it gratefully.

"So tell us," Odahingum demanded after the silence went on for a moment.

Litonya gave him a sardonic look, knowing conversation between them with her present was rare; having it directed at her was astounding. She turned her attention to her mate. "She has great strength to have survived. The injury done to her was very severe. But I believe she will endure now."

"And Donoma?" Takoda asked, recalling the private darkness she had worn as a shroud since Koko's disappearance. He was not sure her soul could stand much more.

"She will do what needs to be done and no more," Litonya stated.

"As it should be," Odahingum said unexpectedly. Takoda blinked at his friend's pronouncement. He knew how he felt, but Donoma was his daughter and the chief had favored Koko's warrior prowess since she had first become part of the clan. Odahingum looked at him sheepishly and shrugged. "Donoma is like a daughter to me as well, Takoda, and she has served the tribe long and faithfully. Despite what Koko did for us when she was younger, the fact remains that she left of her own choice and with little regard for the welfare of the tribe. I will not forbid her from remaining with us if that is her desire - she has earned her place and will always be one of us. But Donoma gets first consideration and I will not allow her to be harmed again."

"Thank you, my friend," Takoda said sincerely. "It is good to know Donoma Chepi is so highly regarded here."

"Never doubt her place, Takoda."

"And neither of you should forget that Donoma will determine what sort of interaction she will have with Koko, whether or not the warrior remains here briefly or has come home to live again," Litonya instructed. "We may not any of us agree with what she decides, but it will be her choice. It has to be. Otherwise we risk losing her permanently," bringing to all their minds how close they had come to losing Donoma before because of their desire to dictate her happiness.

"We will cross that creek when we come to it," Takoda said. "I simply wish that my vision would clear where the two of them were concerned. If I could have only seen this...."

"If only we all could," Odahingum agreed. "However, we cannot look back - we must look forward and try to be prepared for any eventuality this time."

Takoda nodded slowly. "Our only solace is that what I believe precipitated Koko's last slide into withdrawal should not occur again."

Odahingum frowned. "What do you mean, Takoda? I thought she left us because of her unresolved feelings for Donoma. How the two of them could have been so blind to what was between them, the Great Spirit only knows," he muttered. "Although there seemed to be any number of young warriors that would have been happy to overlook that connection."

"And he is certainly not telling," Takoda agreed wryly. "But it is easy for us to see - from the outside and in hindsight. But no... I believe Koko left because of something to do with Donoma, though I have yet to figure out if it is because of something that did happen or something that did not. However, I consider the event to have precipitated everything to have been the death of her Nahko'e, Rae'l. Koko lost a stability in her life when that happened."

Odahingum sat quietly in thought and the other two remained respectfully silent. After a few moments, Litonya patted Takoda's knee and rose, passing his robe back to him and moving to put water on the fire to heat for tea. Finally....

"I think you are right, Takoda. Many things changed for us that day. And so much more changed for both Donoma and Koko." Silence fell again and both men were lost in thought, not even noticing when the water began to boil - churning memories in its wake.

Chapter XI

Koko had been away with the rest of the other young warriors, defending the tribe against the Blue Coats that had been harassing them while the tribe moved out of sight again. Thanks to Donoma's sight, they had been able to dispatch them with a minimum of injury and no casualties. They were headed back to the tribe when Honaw noted a dust cloud headed their way; they scattered, intent on eliminating the new threat with as little damage as could be managed.

Koko was the first to realize it was Donoma coming toward them and she called the warriors back together, even as she rode to meet her. Honaw caught up with them, just as they drew even with one another, and he frowned in Donoma's direction.

"What do you think you are doing, ka'eskone? It is not safe for you to be out here alone. Does Neho'e know where you are?"

Donoma glared at him for a long moment before she turned to Koko. "You must come back with me now, Koko. Something is wrong with Rae'l."

Koko turned to Honaw. "Stay with the rest and ensure that the Blue Coats do not return again. Donoma and I will go ahead." Honaw nodded and turned back to wait for the remainder of the warriors to catch up while Donoma and Koko raced for the clan's encampment. Any other questions would have to wait until later.

They arrived back in the camp in a cloud of dust and Koko jumped from her horse before he could skid to a complete stop. Takoda didn't get in her way, just accepted the reins from her and pointed to his home. Koko adjusted her direction though her cadence didn't even pause. Takoda moved to help Donoma from her pony, holding the reins and extending his hand to her. Donoma slid to the ground and started after Koko, only to find herself held back by Takoda.

"Neho'e...let me go."

"Donoma, there is not much time. Koko needs that time with Rae'l... alone."

"No, Neho'e. I must."

Takoda gazed into her eyes, seeing a depth of pain and understanding that always took him by surprise. He released her shoulder and nodded and Donoma ran across the compound in Koko's footsteps. Litonya watched her go, knowing Rachel was struggling to hold onto life in order to say goodbye to both of the young women who meant so much to her.

Donoma stopped at the doorway - wanting to support Koko during what had to be one of the most difficult moments in her life and wanting to allow her the opportunity to grieve in private. Even at her rather tender age of thirteen springs, Donoma recognized so much beyond her years. Her sight had given her a wisdom that was rare in the old; it was unheard of in the young.

She crossed the threshold and waited, knowing Rachel was telling Koko goodbye by their actions. Koko did not cry, but her shoulders slumped and her head bowed. Donoma wanted to go to her and as if sensing her need, Rachel looked up and beckoned her closer. Slowly, Donoma took the few steps that were required to bring her to Koko's side and she knelt to be closer to both her friends.

Rachel smiled at her and drew a labored breath before speaking. "Donoma Chepi, my friend and most favored student, I have to go now. It is time for me to rejoin Honiahaka in the land of his fathers. But before I leave, I have a favor to beg of you. I ask that you look after my daughter. I know that you have always been her friend and her warrior advisor, but I am asking you to allow her to be more."

Donoma cocked her head curiously. "How so, Rae'l?" taking the older woman's hand in her own as though offering her the strength of her youth. Koko sat as still as stone.

"She will mourn me as a warrior would, ka'eskone. When the time comes, let her mourn me as a woman and as a daughter would. She will not lose face in front of the tribe. But she will need to release her grief. Do not let her be reckless." Rachel fell back to the furs, wheezing and pale from exertion. "Promise me, Donoma. I know I ask much of you, but I need to know Koko Kanti will be cared for when I am no longer here."

"I promise you, Rae'l. She will not be alone."

Rachel closed her blue eyes and nodded, satisfied that of all the People, Donoma Chepi would be the most capable of keeping such a promise. Her only regret was that she would not live to see their story play out to fruition, but she was looking forward to talking to Honiahaka about the woman and warrior their daughter had become - and the woman-child who would some day be her chosen mate.

When she had recovered slightly, Rachel blinked her eyes open once more, her chest still heaving with each effort to draw in breath. Rachel reached out both hands, gratified when both young women accepted her clasp. Then she put them together and held them with her own, clearing her throat raspily and whispering in English. "The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine on you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace." She swallowed. "I love you, my daughters... never forget that." Then Rachel closed her eyes and died, the silence settling over them as her breathing stilled.

Koko removed their hands from beneath Rachel's and she reverently placed them across her chest. Then she stood and moved away from the body though her eyes never left it. Donoma moved with her and took Koko's much larger hand in her own.

"I will go bring Nahko'e," she said softly, squeezing the hand she held before exiting the tent. Litonya was waiting for her just outside and the rest of the tribe was waiting a respectable distance from them. Donoma didn't need to say a word; Litonya understood and rose to follow.

By the time the sun was ready to set, Rachel's body had been prepared and a pyre had been built. The young warriors had returned in time to help dig the pit and collect stones for the fire. They placed the body in the earth and stacked the stones on top. Then they gathered around and waited for Koko to come light the pyre that would speed Rachel's soul to meet Honiahaka in the afterlife.

Koko stepped from her tent in full regalia and everyone straightened unconsciously at the presence she exuded. Donoma followed behind her, unable by right to walk beside her and unwilling by choice to let Koko do this alone. Koko took two steps before frowning, realizing Donoma was no longer with her. She turned and held out a hand, offering Donoma a sad smile.

"You were her daughter too, ka'eskone... as much as your Nahko'e would allow it. You walk with me."

Donoma searched the blue eyes for a long moment, then took Koko's hand without a word and together they approached the fire. Koko picked up the long stick that had been retrieved for just this purpose and waited until Donoma's hand covered hers before touching the fire to the pyre. They stuck it in several strategic places, ensuring that the fire was well caught before offering the torch to Takoda.

It was silent for a while as the tribe watched the smoke curled toward the heavens. Once it streamed in a steady column, Koko opened her mouth and began to sing.

It wasn't a typical burial song... not for the People. Instead it was the song sung in the white man's tongue that Rachel had spent so many hours singing to her and Donoma to help them fall asleep. Donoma recognized it immediately and curled her fingers back around Koko's, offering her a small smile and an approving nod.

When the song was finished, Koko and Donoma knelt at Rachel's side, intent on watching over her remains for the night. The fire would naturally die out and in the morning, the tribe would move on, following the herd to fresh pastures.

Morning arrived and Takoda found Koko unmoving from her vigil. Donoma leaned against Koko's shoulder, her exhaustion apparent in her face. He leaned down to pick her up, but a shake of Koko's head stopped him from removing Donoma. He arched an eyebrow in question.

"I would like to go off on my own for a little while and I want to take Donoma with me if she would like to accompany me."

Takoda nodded slowly. "That is acceptable, Koko. I have never been afraid for Donoma when she is with you."

"Thank you, Takoda. We will head out when she awakens then."

"I will inform Litonya. I am certain she will want to pack some things for you to take with you."

Koko gave a sad smile of agreement. "Of that I am certain," she replied. "It seems to be the way of mothers."

"I believe you are right, Koko Kanti. And much as Rae'l did, Litonya looks on both you and Donoma Chepi as her daughters. If there is anything...."

"No, Takoda, thank you. I am not the first to lose a mother, nor will I be the last."

"No, you are not," Takoda concurred. "But your situation is a little different from most as well."

"Perhaps," Koko allowed. "But not all are as fortunate as I have been in making a new family," meaning the tribe, but letting her gaze drift down to Donoma who still rested peacefully against her.

Takoda opened his mouth to say something, then hesitated. It wasn't his place... yet, anyway, and when the time came, he expected that Koko would do the honorable thing. He wondered if they were even aware yet. He suspected Koko was - she was a fully grown warrior after all. Donoma though... he knew that the Great Spirit did not lend insight to matters of the heart. He doubted that she understood what was between them, even if she was able to see it.

Instead he simply said, "We are glad you are part of that family, Koko Kanti. I have long blessed the day Donoma insisted we help you and Rae'l."

"As have I," Koko stated as Donoma stirred against her.

"You have what?" she asked sleepily, rubbing her eyes and trying to stretch without moving too much. Koko looked down at her with a smile.

"I have been thankful for the day we became family."

Donoma's smile was big and bright. "Me too," hugging Koko tightly.

"So, would you like to go out and listen with me? I think I need a little quiet."

"I would like that. It has been a long time since I have done that." Koko nodded... it had been more than a full cycle since she had taken Donoma out the first time and taught her how to listen.

"Gather your things, ka'eskone. We will leave when you are ready."

"I will return in a moment." And true to her word, Donoma reappeared almost instantly. Even without Takoda's notification, Litonya had anticipated such an action and had everything ready for both of them. Koko rose from her knees, briefly touching the still warm stones before extending her hand to Donoma who accepted it without hesitation.

"We will try not to be too long. The Blue Coats are out in force to protect the white travelers and several of the other tribes are out hunting for the same settlers. Advise Odahingum to stay near the riverbed. The herd will not wander far from it, and it should keep the People away from accidental discovery. They will have to deliberately come looking for you that way - they seem to be intent on cutting their way across the heartland."

"That does not seem to be a very intelligent way to travel."

"Neither does angering the People - warlike and not alike - by breaking the treaties and promises they have made, and yet they continue to do that as well," Koko spat in disgust. "However, Donoma Chepi and I will be fine. And we will return soon. I just...."

"Koko... I meant what I said. I have always trusted Donoma in your care and you have never done anything to betray that trust. Take the time you need. You know how to find us; we will leave the signs for you to follow when you are ready to come home."


Donoma knew she was dreaming, but it was the dream of a memory of what had really happened. She shifted in her sleep, remembering that trip out onto the plains as if it had happened only yesterday.


They had headed south, away from the People and the Blue Coats and the settlers. Koko's knowledge of the area was extensive and she was looking for a specific terrain. It took a full day's travel and part of a second on horseback, but when they stopped, Donoma looked around in awe at landscape she had never dreamed was possible. Gone was the flatness and waving grasses of the prairie; in its place were towers of colored rock, bushy trees and scrub brush and sand unlike anything Donoma had ever imagined. She just stood and stared; Koko laughed.

"It is beautiful, Koko... absolutely amazing. How did you find it?"

"We stumbled across it some time back. I decided I wanted to come back here one day and listen." Her shoulders slumped. "I only wish...."

Donoma stepped closer without touching. "I am sorry, Koko. If I had seen, I would have told you."

Koko turned - tears in her eyes not being allowed to spill down her face. "I know, ka'eskone. But death is a natural part of life and I believe she was ready to rejoin my Neho'e. Despite their unorthodox beginning, they were well-matched mates. It was her time if the Great Spirit did not gift you with knowledge of her death beforehand."

"But you are still going to miss her presence, and so I am," Donoma stated with conviction.

Koko smiled at her. "Of course I will. But I think she is at peace where she is and in a few days, there will be another light in the sky that will mark her spirit watching over us."

"Do you really think so?"

"I do, ka'eskone. It is what happened when Honiahaka died."

Several days passed for the two of them, mostly in silence. They talked some, but mostly they listened. Koko ran... never far - up the rock sides, around the perimeter - always within hearing of their tiny campsite. Donoma took many walks around, investigating the territory and collecting bits of the colorful rock, figuring she would be able to create distinctive beads from them if nothing else.

That night they sat around the fire looking at the stars and Koko smiled. Donoma caught the expression and cocked her head in puzzlement. Koko arched and eyebrow at her in question.

"Why have you not cried, Koko? Is that not how a woman and a daughter mourn the loss of her Nahko'e?" thinking of Rachel's last words to her. "Yet you seem... happy - at peace."

"I am, ka'eskone... I cried for Nahko'e in my heart while I was out among the hills. Those tears were for me, not for her. She would not want me to dishonor my status as a warrior to cry for her openly... even in front of you. You have fulfilled your promise to her, ka'eskone; you simply allowed me to mourn in my own time and my own way."

"Tell me what you were smiling at then. I want to know what puts the sparkle back in your eyes."

Koko offer Donoma her hand, then tugged her down gently to sit in front of her. Koko extended her arm upwards and Donoma followed the line of sight. "Do you see the red light?" pointing out the particular star she was talking about. Donoma nodded. "Do you see the tiny white light just to the right of it?" Another nod. "That is the light that appeared in the sky just after Neho'e died. Now," shifting her arm over just slightly, "do you see the tiny blue light beside that?"

Donoma squinted a moment before nodding again. Blue was a little more difficult to see against the blackness of the night sky. "That light appeared for the first time last night. I believe that Rachel's spirit has finally found Honiahaka's in the afterlife and they are together once more."

Donoma turned slightly to look at Koko and made an indescribable face; Koko couldn't contain the laughter that bubbled up from her chest when she saw it. Donoma turned around completely and glared, causing even louder laughter to erupt. Finally, Koko got ahold of herself and cleared her throat. "Thank you, ka'eskone. I needed that," evoking a reluctant smile from Donoma. "Now what was that face for?"

"I am sure it is very nice that Rae'l found Honiahaka again - they have been separated and alone for a long time. It just sounds so very...." Donoma hesitated and waved her hands, unsure how to convey her thoughts on the romanticism involved. Koko's countenance softened.

"Do not worry, Donoma Chepi. One day there will be someone in your life that you will feel so about and it will all seem different then. It will not sound so very...." Koko finished, waving her hand in much the same motion that Donoma had. "I promise."

"Are you sure, Koko? Do you know this for a fact?"

"I do indeed, ka'eskone. I have seen it over and over many, many times," she continued before Donoma could ask any probing questions. "It happened to your Neho'e and Nahko'e; it has happened to Honaw and Keez and even Aucaman. And how many of the older girls in the tribe that used to run from the boys now wait for them so that they might walk together instead?" Koko smiled. "It is the way of things, ka'eskone. It is how nature works."

"What about you, Koko?" Donoma asked, ignoring the uneasiness she felt flowing from Koko's body as she stiffened. "How can you know what will change and what will happen if you do not have someone like that in your life?" Koko blew out a breath, having wanted to avoid this discussion; then she decided to answer as honestly as she could without revealing anything.

"I know because I have watched and learned from those around me and though it is not quite the same thing as mating, I have had it happen, ka'eskone. My life changed when you came into it and brought my new family with you. I feel very strongly about the family that adopted me." She paused. "For some, there will never be one single person that will hold their heart and soul, Donoma. But it is only that way for a few. You will have many who will wish to mate with you when you are considered of an age that Takoda would allow it. Just remember to choose the one who makes you happy. Promise me, ka'eskone," Koko urged.

"I promise, Koko, though I prefer not to think about it right now. I do not want to grow up that much yet. I am very happy with the way things are now. I like my family just the way it is, though I will miss Rae'l and her lessons."

"You cannot tell me you did not have those books memorized," Koko said with a smile, relieved she had skirted the danger of the previous topic. "Maybe we should see if we could find some new books."

"I would like that," Donoma admitted honestly. "But I have no desire to go into the white man's world to find them and we have nothing they would take for them. Perhaps I should make my own."

The silence grew thoughtful after that and neither of them realized when they fell asleep.


It was dark when Donoma awakened, her thoughts a mass of confusion and her body sore from having remained in the same position for so long. She sat up slowly, pushing her hair back from her face and blinking the sleep from her eyes as Litonya stuck her head in. She didn't say a word - simply backed out and returned again a moment later with some hearty stew and bread. Donoma didn't have the strength to argue. She just accepted the bowl and ate, trying to sort out the thoughts and images left by her dream. She finally put it aside for later contemplation, knowing there were things that needed to be taken care of in the present - that the past and the future could wait for another time and place.

When she was done eating, she checked on Koko, satisfied that she was no worse, and Litonya remained with the warrior while Donoma took some time to clean up. She returned to her home and her mother departed, with the instruction that Donoma was to call her for help if it was needed. And so began the next part of Donoma's vigil.

Chapter XII

For three more days Donoma's supervision of her patient continued in much the same vein. She kept Koko under careful observation - watching her temperature, changing her bandages, feeding her broth and forcing her to consume it. There was no more sign of infection and Koko's breathing remained deep and even and for that the entire tribe was thankful.

Still, there was a tension throughout the encampment that had everyone on edge. Takoda convinced Odahingum to hold a free-for-all challenge among the warriors a little away from the camp to draw everyone outside and away from the pall that hung over them.

Donoma appreciated it as much as any of the rest of the tribe since their leaving meant she had peace for just a little while. Without meaning to, the clan had placed an expectation on her and the longer Koko remained unreachable, the more difficult Donoma found her position. She had done all she knew to do; it was now up to Koko. But truth be told, Donoma had mixed feelings about that as well.

Although she truly wished no harm or ill-will to Koko, the fact was she still ached from Koko's desertion. And despite everything, there was a part of her that wished Koko had never returned home - that she, Donoma, had never been put into such an untenable position that required her to care for someone she had never stopped caring for.

Donoma followed her usual routine, removing Koko's bandages and cleaning her up carefully before deciding to leave the wrappings off for a while. The wounds seemed to be healing well on their own and Donoma hoped that a bit of exposure might speed the process along. Then she moved to the fire to retrieve the pot of broth Litonya had left there specifically for Koko earlier that morning. She smiled at her mother's thoughtfulness, then froze when her name was whispered by a voice she had not heard in five very long years.

"Donoma...." Not a question - more of a plea, though what for Donoma herself had no clue. She turned to face Koko and realized that Koko was still in a state of deep sleep. However, the fact that she spoke indicated to Donoma that the warrior was well on the road to recovery, and she determined to have her moved to her own home as soon as the others returned from the games.

She left the broth near the fire, deciding to leave that chore to whoever was assigned to Koko's care once she left Donoma's. Then she went to the entrance of her dwelling and pushed the doorway aside, so she could stand just outside it and enjoy the sunshine and fresh air that permeated the earth. It was rejuvenating and Donoma absorbed it like a sponge, allowing the first smile she'd worn since Koko's arrival to rest on her face.

Then it faded as the memories of waking up to Koko's disappearance descended on Donoma and her heart broke all over again as the desertion she had felt that morning wash over her again.


Donoma woke up happy, despite the odd proposal she had received from Ahanu the previous day. She didn't see the appeal herself - she had all she could possible want in the family the Great Spirit had blessed her with. She could not imagine anything or anyone could make her any happier than those who were already in her life, and she certainly did not relish becoming the property of some man, no matter how kind he might be to her.

Several of the boys that had grown up with her brothers had shown some interest, but they also seemed to know better than to mention it. Donoma had always been off-limits to them and there was no reason for them to think that would change without consent from Donoma herself. The older generation felt the decision lay with Takoda and assumed he would be glad to have her wed with a home of her own, despite her commitment to Koko Kanti. They did not know that Takoda and Donoma had discussed it at length while developing her abilities, and he was quite willing to let her make her own decision concerning her future. Unusual to say the least, but Takoda knew, more than the rest, that Donoma would one day be able to see the mate the Great Spirit had sent to her. He just wished her chosen would step forward and be recognized. But until that time, Takoda was happy to allow Donoma to refuse any and all unwanted proposals.

So Donoma rose from her bed that morning full of optimism - Takoda had kept his word and she had been able to refuse her first suitor without repercussion. Perhaps the rest would take a lesson and there wouldn't have to be more refusals in the future. Donoma didn't want to embarrass anyone or hurt feelings. But the fact was she didn't feel the need to add more to her life.

She rose and washed her face and combed through her hair with the bone comb that matched the one Koko had carved for herself. Then Donoma stepped from Takoda's tent into the early morning sun, wondering at the somber mood that had settled over the encampment. She sat beside her father at her mother's bidding and accepted the breakfast porridge Litonya offered her.

"What is wrong, Neho'e?"

"I do not know, ka'eskone. Koko Kanti is gone. She left sometime under the cover of darkness and provided no word on her whereabouts or her plans to return. Donoma... she took everything with her."

A frown crossed Donoma's face. Though it was not unusual for Koko to go out scouting in the middle of the night, she had always left word what direction she was heading and when to look for her return. At times, she had even given reasons for her disappearance. But never before had she vanished without leaving some sort of explanation, and she had *never* taken more than the basic necessities for her trip. Her personal possessions remained with the tribe and Donoma took special pains to ensure that they were moved carefully as the People followed the herd.

"What are you saying, Neho'e?"

Takoda sighed. This was not the kind of news he wanted to share, but he wouldn't allow anyone else to assume the responsibility for it either.

"I believe she has left us, Donoma Chepi. For whatever reason, Koko Kanti is gone from us for good."

"No," Donoma declared fiercely. "No, Neho'e. You are wrong. Koko would not leave without telling me. I am her warrior advisor. She would not leave without talking to me first," clutching her bowl so tightly Takoda could hear the wood cracking. He reached over and unclenched her hands from either side, sliding it from her grasp and placing it on the ground before covering her hands with his.

"I hope you are right, ka'eskone. I hope I am wrong and you are right about this, Donoma."

"I cannot be wrong, Neho'e. Koko would not leave without telling me - I am certain of that. We have an agreement and she would never dishonor that. Besides, I would have seen. She will return soon. You will see."

Takoda nodded his agreement, though he shut his eyes so Donoma could not see his doubts. "I hope you are right, ka'eskone," he repeated. "I truly hope you are right."

But the days passed and Koko Kanti did not return. After the first few days, Odahingum sent out several small scouting parties to see if he could find her or any trace of what had happened to her. But there was nothing - no trail, no remains... no sign that there had ever been a warrior named Koko Kanti to pass through their lives.

The days passed into weeks and weeks into one season and then two. By the time a complete cycle rolled around, Donoma had pulled completely into herself and when she passed into her sixteenth spring without Koko's return, she realized that Takoda had in fact been correct and she had been so very wrong.

The despair she felt settled over the entire tribe and though Donoma continued to live among them and serve them to the best of her ability, it was clear to all that she no longer found real joy in living and her gift had become as much a burden as it was a blessing.

Several of the warriors - young and old - tried to catch her eye, figuring without Koko's protective presence they stood a better chance than before. But Donoma didn't even give them a second glance. The thought of investing into someone else the same effort that she had given to Koko was exhausting and Donoma refused to settle for less than everything.

Eventually, she had put Koko Kanti and her desertion behind her, returning the tribe to a semblance of normality. Still there was always a part of Donoma that she held back from everyone, unwilling to put herself out there completely and allow herself to be hurt again. She didn't understand it really, and when anyone tried to question her, she simply brushed them off as irrelevant. She couldn't explain it to herself, much less anyone else. She simply knew that she would never, ever allow herself to trust anyone like that again. Nothing was worth the kind of pain this betrayal had cost her.


She brought her attention back to the present and glanced behind her at the sleeping figure of the warrior who had once been her friend. No, she decided firmly, she would never, ever allow herself to trust anyone like that again... especially not Koko Kanti.


As midday arrived, the tribe returned to their homes and fires to partake in a meal before heading back out to the prairie to continue their games. Donoma still stood just outside her tent with her eyes closed facing the sun, and though she heard them approach, she didn't open her eyes or acknowledge them until Honaw placed a strong hand on her slender shoulder.

"Donoma Chepi... is everything all right?"

She blinked her eyes open and slammed them shut at the glare, squinting the second time to see Honaw's worried expression. She smiled gently at him and he could see the residual sadness in her eyes. "Everything is fine, Hestatanemo. I believe the time has come to move Koko Kanti to her home. She is well enough that others can care for her now until she is able to care for herself."

Honaw gazed at her, his unease etched into his face. "Are you sure, ka'eskone? Surely she would prefer if you...."

"Her preferences are not my concern, Honaw. I have done that which I said I would; now it is time for another to take up the burden and bear it. She is no longer my responsibility."

Honaw stared into her eyes and read the truth there. She had hardened herself to deal with Koko's unexpected appearance and now part of the sister he knew was locked away behind walls he had never wanted to see in her. He nodded his understanding.

"I will move her myself and alert Nahko'e to her change in status. She enlisted volunteers to give you a break."

Donoma shook her head. "I will speak to Nahko'e myself. I am not taking a break - I am discharging her from my care. Neho'e can check on her once she awakens. It is time for me to finish the spirit quest that was interrupted by her return." Honaw had expected as much, but it still broke his heart to hear it.

"Very well... should I move her now?"

"Yes," Donoma replied decisively. "At least the village will be able to relax a little now, knowing that not only will she survive, but she will soon be awake and alert enough to become a productive member of the community again."

"And what of you, ka'eskone? Will you still be a productive member of the community?"

"I never stopped, Hestatanemo. Surely that should count for something." Anger sparked in her green eyes and Honaw understood immediately he had hit a sore point with her. He held up his hands in surrender, well aware that everyone was watching their interaction.

"You are right, Donoma. I am sorry. I just worry."

"I know you do, Honaw, but there is no need. Now, please move Koko Kanti from my home so I can air it out a bit before I leave," her voice firm and final in its instruction.

Honaw crossed the threshold into her home and scooped Koko into his strong arms.

"Donoma?" she whispered again and he frowned.

"No, Koko," he responded softly. "It is Honaw and you are safe. Rest now. Everything will all make sense to you later."

This time Koko frowned, though her eyes never opened and she whispered once more, "Donoma...." Honaw sighed. This had all the earmarks of a disaster waiting to happen, but he had been given his instruction. So he stepped from Donoma's tent into the instant hush that fell in the camp as the tribe realized the implications of his actions. They watched in continued silence until Honaw exited Koko's home after gently depositing her on the furs that had been prepared for her. Only when he went back to his own fire did the conversations resume and the tension in the air relax.

Litonya waited for Donoma to follow Honaw out, certain she would want to see Koko settled, but when that didn't immediately happen, she went to check on her. She was a little surprised to find Donoma tamping out the fire and sweeping out the ashes to cool them before they were disposed of.

"Donoma?" The younger woman turned at the sound of Litonya's voice, then smiled at her. She set the broom aside and picked up the still warm pot of broth.

"Koko Kanti still needs to eat; I believe she will be waking up soon and will want to feed herself."

Litonya nodded and accepted the pot with ease. She motioned to the dwelling. "Do you need help with the cleansing?" knowing it was standard procedure for Donoma to scrub her home intensely to rid it of residual sickness after she completed her care of a clansman. Donoma shook her head.

"No, thank you, Nahko'e. I am going to sweep out the fire and open the bottom to allow it to air out while I am gone. I will finish whatever scrubbing is necessary when I return."

Litonya frowned. "Return? Where are you going, Donoma Chepi?"

"I am going to finish my spirit quest, Nahko'e. Koko Kanti's arrival only delayed it; it did not change the fact that I was in the middle of my search."

"Have you spoken to Takoda?"

"Neho'e knows I need to do this, Nahko'e. He will not object. But I will notify him of my intentions before I leave."

"Thank you, Donoma. That is all I can ask. I think what you did here was a very brave thing, nahtona. I want you to know how proud I am of you." Before Donoma could retort, Litonya continued, "I need to get this to Koko Kanti and set up the watch in her tent to care for her until she is well enough to care for herself. Then I will return with some things for your journey."

"I will wait, Nahko'e. I will not leave without saying goodbye." Unlike Koko did, went unspoken, but it hung between them regardless.

"Thank you, Donoma. I will be swift." Then Litonya left Donoma to her cleaning and scurried off to Koko Kanti's dwelling, motioning several of the women to join her so she could issue instructions. Honaw's wife Gaagii volunteered to watch first and Litonya nodded her thanks before returning to her own fire to prepare a few items for Donoma to take with her.

Takoda followed her into their dwelling and watched her for a long moment, then caught her by the arm, halting her progress. Litonya stopped short and met his eyes and he easily read her discomfort. "She is going back out again then."

"Yes... she promised not to leave without saying goodbye, but she feels the need to finish the quest that Koko Kanti's advent postponed. Donoma has not even considered that Koko's arrival was the beginning of the quest she is to take."

"You know something?" Takoda asked sharply. Litonya was no seer, but the Great Spirit had gifted her with insight into his visions and Donoma's when they were quick to dismiss the obvious in search of the obscure. "Has she shared her vision with you?"

"No, Takoda. You know she rarely does that anymore. But if her quest was not to lead her to Koko and Koko back to us, I am not sure what the point of her being out there alone was. She is searching for what is missing... we all know the only thing that will satisfy her is the warrior that she brought back to us."

"I do not think that will be an easy thing for Donoma to accept, Litonya. She still carries much anger for the way Koko Kanti left without a word to her. There is a sense of deep betrayal there as far as Donoma is concerned. We must give her the time and space to work this out."

"And if she cannot?"

Takoda shook his head. "We will cross that creek when we come to it. However, I will have her brothers look out for her. She will not be alone this time."

"Thank you, Takoda. Now I must get some things together for her to take with her on her journey. I told her I would return very soon."

"I will go with you, Litonya. I need to inform her that she will not be alone in her quest this time. I know," he continued, responding to the look on her face, "but I promised Donoma I would never lie to her. She would consider sneaking them in behind her back the same sort of deceit. I think she will expect as much given what happened the last time I allowed her to overrule my better judgment."

They would have continued their conversation had Aucaman not interrupted them with urgency. "Come," he bade them without preamble. "Koko Kanti is...." He shook his head as though to clear it. "Come," he insisted again. "You must see this."

They followed him outside and stopped short. Koko stood outside her home wrapped in the fur robe that had been used to cover her looking completely disoriented. She didn't say a word... didn't move from the spot where she had taken root as soon as she emerged from her tent. She looked around with confusion apparent in her eyes - as though she did not recognize where she was or those around her. She didn't respond when Gaagii tried to guide her back inside, nor when Honaw spoke to her.

Then Donoma stepped from her home and time stopped.

"Donoma?" Koko whispered before turning her gaze heavenward. "I can't be here!" she screamed in the white man's tongue, forgetting that Donoma understood her. "Why are you doing this to me??" She looked around frantically, her eyes wild in an effort to make her escape. Honaw wrapped his arms around her from behind and she struggled, but her weakened, injured body could not overcome him and she slid to the ground in defeat.

Donoma watched Honaw lift Koko into his arms and move her back into her home. Then she went on to Takoda's fire accepting the supplies from Litonya's hands but not allowing either of them to speak first. "I will not go far," she assured them, "but I must go. I will return when the quest is finished."

"And if what you seek is here?" Litonya asked as Honaw emerged from Koko's dwelling.

"It is not," Donoma assured her. "Nothing here has changed for me," she stated firmly.

"Your hestatanemos will guard you until your return," Takoda said in a voice that brooked no room for argument. "Do not wander far."

"I will not, Neho'e. Thank you for understanding."

"I do not," Takoda confessed. "I only know I want you to find happiness, ka'eskone."

Donoma kissed first her father, then her mother, and without another word, she was gone. Takoda and Litonya exchanged glances.

"Remind me again why we had children?" Litonya just shook her head and they headed out to talk to Odahingum. Things were liable to get a lot uglier before anything good happened and they needed to have a back-up plan... just in case.

Chapter XIII

Donoma made it to the edge of the encampment without interference when her youngest older brother Kya caught up to her. He didn't speak - words weren't his forte. Instead, he caught the Appaloosa horse Donoma had nicknamed Dapples and held the mare steady while Donoma mounted. Then he handed her the things she was taking.

"Thank you, Kya. Are you going with me?"

"I can follow behind if it would ease your mind, ka'eskone."

Donoma smiled and shook her head. She had such wonderful brothers, even if they had given her grief growing up. She appreciated their protectiveness a little more now - they never forgot Takoda's directive to watch out for her, but they also remembered that she was an adult.

"I do not mind if you ride beside me, Kya. I only ask that when we reach our destination that you allow me the space and privacy I need to continue my search."

Kya nodded and caught his own mount before jerking his head at her to lead the way. And the two of them headed out onto the vast prairie with Aucaman trailing far behind... just so he would know where to go searching for them when it came his time to protect his sister.


Before Takoda and Litonya could reach Odahingum's fire, the chieftain was stepping into Koko's home; Gaagii immediately emerged from the doorway and moved back to her own fire. Litonya broke off and headed towards Gaagii while Takoda moved on to stand in the doorway of Koko's home. Odahingum stood in front of him and he stiffened until he recognized the presence at his back. But he did not turn around or acknowledge Takoda in any way. Instead, he kept his attention on the delirious warrior in front of him as Koko dumped her saddlebags as she tried to find her other set of clothing in an effort to dress herself.

"Koko Kanti, you are in no condition to leave!"

"Odahingum, I cannot remain here. I was never supposed to return," she added more quietly, wincing as she slid her spare shirt over her shoulders. She buttoned the front slowly, breathing in and out in measured breaths, attempting to remain upright. She didn't take notice of her nakedness, having long since outgrown any hint of modesty. All she knew at the moment was the physical pain of her injuries and the emotional devastation of being in this place... again.

Koko stretched carefully to reach her trousers, then took a deep breath before struggling to her feet. Neither man moved nor offered her assistance and Koko finally looked at Takoda. "Help me, please, Takoda. I cannot stay here," she reiterated, gasping for breath.

Odahingum's raised arm stopped Takoda's progress even though the shaman had shown no intention of moving. "Perhaps I have not made myself perfectly clear, Koko Kanti. Aside from the wounds you bear that make leaving a physical impossibility for you at the moment - if you leave here without resolving your... misunderstandings... with Donoma Chepi, you will no longer be able to call this home. You will not be welcome among us."

"I was not able to stay then and I am unable to remain now. Your words do not really make a difference to me. I simply want to gather my things and leave. At least things can settle back to normal with me gone again."

"They have not been normal since you left!!" Takoda broke in. "You made a promise to her, Koko Kanti... swore an oath that you turned your back on! She was your warrior advisor and yet you simply left her with nothing... not even the courtesy of a note. If you leave again without a word to her, my sons and I will hunt you down. I am not asking for an explanation - that is not my place. But Donoma deserves better from you than a silent dismissal, even if it is just a goodbye!"

"You do not understand!" putting the pain of her choice in leaving Donoma those years before aside for the moment. It wasn't something she wanted to discuss with either of them anyway. "This is not about what happened between Donoma Chepi and me five cycles ago. The men who did this to me will be looking for my body. Black was supposed to take me home, not bring me here. They will come here eventually if I do not leave soon and lead them away from here. My first responsibility to Donoma Chepi has always been to protect her. I cannot do that if I am here!"

"You cannot do that anyway - her hestatanemos protect her now. Besides, she is not here. She and Kya have gone out onto the plain so that she can finish the spirit quest your arrival interrupted. She does not feel that your return was the answer she was seeking."

Koko flinched almost imperceptibly and held up her hands, not wanting to hear such a dismissal; she slowly sank to the ground again, covering herself to stave off the chills she felt skittering throughout her body. "That is not my affair, Takoda. My concern lies in protecting her and the tribe that took my Nahko'e and me in during our hour of need - People I was once able to call family. That right is gone now... I understand that. That lack does not negate the debt I have here."

"What is your plan?"

"Plan?" Koko repeated dumbly. "I plan to leave and make sure the men that are looking for me find me... far away from this place."

"And then?"

"And then it will not matter - Donoma and her People will be safe and my debt to them will have been paid in full."

"NO!" Takoda roared though he barely had to raise his voice. His intensity was enough to keep her attention. "You will take a war party with you and they will destroy this threat to the People. Then you will return and make your peace with Donoma Chepi. Only then will your debt be paid in full. Otherwise, the warriors will dispose of this threat and your debt will continue to remain unpaid. And you will still face Donoma when she returns. I will not see her destroyed as she was when you left before, Koko Kanti. She would not survive the darkness that would follow."

Odahingum watched in silence. Koko Kanti was the strongest warrior he had ever known and yet she had a single weakness - one that Takoda was currently exploiting. He could only hope that Koko would see reason, then breathed a sigh of relief when the dark head dropped and her shoulders slumped in defeat before she nodded once.

"Which is it to be, Koko Kanti?" Odahingum asked.

"I will lead the war party and then I will speak to Donoma Chepi before I take my leave from the People. And when I go, we will be considered even and I will not return again. Now since neither of you will assist me, I would ask that you wait outside until I am dressed. I would prefer for you to be witness to my humiliation no longer," her fire gone... only grim determination left in its place.

"Let me call Litonya...."

"NO! Just leave me alone. Go gather the war party. I will be out when I am ready and we will leave. I have no desire to remain here longer than is necessary... and I am certain you feel the same. Now please go so I can do what must be done to prepare for the coming fight."

They left, Takoda first without a backwards glance, then Odahingum. Just before he let the doorway fall closed behind him, he chanced a last glimpse of Koko Kanti and what he saw was heartbreaking. Her shoulders were stiff, her breathing carefully measured and her face devoid of any real expression. But he could see the trail of a single tear coursing down her face and wondered at the folly of youth. Surely Koko knew what needed to be done - why was she so resistant to it?

Then he shook his head and left her in solitude and silence.

Koko knew Odahingum was looking at her, and it took every last measure of restraint not to shout and curse at the man. But the situation she currently found herself in the middle of was no one's doing but her own and she was honorable enough to admit that. It didn't mean it hurt any less or make it any easier to have to reckon with, but then, she supposed... that was life.

Koko pushed the blanket away from her, wincing when the cold air hit her naked skin. She didn't think she had any fever or infection left, but even her skin hurt at this point. Still, she had a responsibility to fulfill and with much lip-biting and muffled groans, Koko Kanti finally managed to clothe herself and stand. She wished for some other type of clothing to wear - the white man's clothes were rough and abrasive, but they were all she had... she would make due. Koko moved slowly towards the pile of things she'd dumped from her saddle bags and reached beyond it for her guns.

Then she saw it and stopped cold - it was the carefully crafted chest protector she'd worn into every battle faithfully until the day she'd left the People to go live in the white man's world. She'd refused to desecrate it or what it meant to her by using it there. No one was worthy of such intimate knowledge, so she'd packed it carefully away and locked the memories away with it. She'd stood on her own two feet and until now, she'd been all right.

A soft knock on the flap brought Koko's head up and she glared before she heard Litonya's soft voice. "Koko Kanti, may I come in? I have something for you I think you will appreciate." She didn't want to... she really didn't. But her mother had raised her better and Koko knew in her heart that Litonya had a great deal to do with her being healed.

"Come," she beckoned and reached again for her guns. Her motion was brought up short by Litonya placing a hand on her arm.

"I saw the damage done to you, Koko Kanti; I know how badly you hurt. Here," she added, extending her other hand and offering Koko a set of soft leathers. "These were to be yours anyway. Your mother began them and Donoma was working on completing them when you left." She cleared her throat awkwardly. "She finished them just before her sixteenth cycle. But you never came home for her to give them to you. I think it is time they were yours."

Koko accepted them hesitantly, holding up the shirt. She gasped at the intricate beadwork that covered it - this had been a shirt for celebration... the birth of a child, becoming a warrior, or a joining, her mind supplied.

"I cannot accept these, Litonya," with regret in her voice and eyes. "These were meant for happiness and joy... for a warrior that no longer exists. I will not defile their meaning by wearing them into battle with scum such as these men. They do not deserve to look upon such. And I cannot wear them anyway. As Takoda so rightly pointed out - I am the one who walked away. You should no longer have such consideration for me."

"This is as much about Donoma as it is about you, Koko. She and Rachel created these for you... they do nothing for anyone else." She dropped the pants on the floor with a curl in her lip to show her disdain. "Do with them what you will, Koko Kanti. That does seem to be what you are best at. Maybe one day you will wake up and realize that you are deliberately throwing away the Great Spirit's most precious gift."

Litonya turned and stalked from Koko's home without a backwards glance, her shoulders stiff and unyielding in her anger. Koko watched her go, then with a groan she slipped back to her knees slowly. She carefully took the leather and folded it neatly, sighing with regret at missed opportunities. Then Koko tucked it into the bottom of a saddlebag and reached for her gun belt.

She grunted as she stood up, breathing deeply, willing away the pain she felt in her body and in her soul. Another knock on the door made her growl - surely Odahingum and Takoda had understood her request for privacy. Angry that they were knowingly ignoring her appeal to their honor, Koko strode to the flap and thrust it aside... only to find Honaw staring back at her with wide, understanding eyes. The fury in hers died and she stepped back, allowing him admittance into her home. Then she turned back to her saddlebags and eased down to complete her repacking.

Honaw didn't speak... not yet - his presence was enough. He knew Koko would speak when she was ready; his only fear was that she wouldn't.

There seemed to be a method to her madness and Koko picked and chose items with deliberate care before placing them in one bag or another. Honaw watched as she slowed and caressed the more personal items - things that evidently meant a lot to her. But when she reached for the chest protector with trembling hands, Honaw finally stepped forward.

"This is not for putting away, Koko Kanti. The time has come for you to reclaim your place in this tribe and in Donoma Chepi's life. Nothing will proclaim your return home more decisively than for you to resume your role of her protector."

Koko crumpled it and stuffed the beadwork chest guard thoughtlessly into the top of the bag, then stood to face him with a pained rage in her eyes. "It has been made clear to me that is no longer my place, Honaw - that my services are neither required nor wanted. I agreed to lead the warriors to destroy the threat I inadvertently brought to the People I was once able to call family. I will then say goodbye to Donoma Chepi before I take my leave from this place for good."

"Why, Koko Kanti??? Surely you know...."

"I know that I will not stand between Donoma and her destiny, Honaw, but I cannot stay and watch that destiny play out. That is more than I can bear!"

Honaw scrunched his eyebrows in frowning thought. Certainly Koko was not that dense. "Koko, what are you talking about?? You *are* that destiny. You have to know that!"

"I am not going to discuss this with you, Honaw. Donoma Chepi has so much love to give - I will not keep her from finding the happiness she deserves to have because of the misplaced loyalty and promises of a child!" She snatched up the bags and gasped as pain ripped through her belly at the action. Honaw moved swiftly and gripped her by the upper arms, holding her upright until she was stable enough to shake off his grasp. He shook her just slightly to get her attention, then he removed the saddlebags from her hands.

"Koko, you trusted me once."

She closed her eyes. "I trusted you always, Honaw - to guard my back when we were warriors together and to protect my ka'eskone when I could no longer do so."

"Then trust me now, sister of my heart. Donoma's happiness lies with you. You did not see the devastation you wrought on her sensitive soul with your leaving, nor did you have to face the darkness that was left behind in her heart. If you leave again... even if you say goodbye, you will destroy her."

"And what makes you think she still needs me, Honaw - that she still wants me to walk beside her? I saw the look on her face - she hates me."

"No, Koko... she is angry - very, very angry, but she has never, ever hated you. It would have been easier for her if she had. At least then she would have moved past you and gotten on with her life."

"She never... not with anyone?"

"No, Koko... she never - not that there have not been plenty of offers. She has always refused to consider any other possibilities and Takoda is content to allow her to make her own decisions in the matter. Perhaps it is time that you do the same."

Koko didn't move a muscle, but the defeat was apparent in every line of her body. Honaw took that as his sign and knelt to dig the chest protector from the bag she had shoved it in. He straightened it with the flick of his wrist, then slid it over her head. Koko didn't resist when he lifted her arms to secure it on either side. When he was done, he stepped back from her and gazed into her eyes, suddenly filled with new purpose.

"You look much as I remember, Koko Kanti."

"I am not, Honaw. I have changed much in the time I have been away from the People. But I will not let harm come to those I once called family. Come," she commanded naturally. "We need to go."

Without direction, Honaw lifted the saddle from the ground, glad Aucaman had cleaned the blood from it. Koko clenched her jaw, but allowed him to help her, knowing there was no way she could manage the heavy thing with her injuries. Then she pushed the doorway aside and gave a loud, piercing whistle. It served to draw all eyes in the camp to her, but that was not her concern. The big black came running, stopping and rearing only when he was within a hairsbreadth of Koko.

She let him dance a moment, then reached for his mane. Black nudged her playfully, then settled down to await her bidding. She motioned to Honaw, who placed the saddle on the horse's back and strapped the girth around him. Then he flipped the saddlebags over the strong back and waited for further instruction.

Koko tapped the big black's shoulder and he knelt, allowing her to climb aboard with relative ease. Honaw stood back and let her go, knowing she had to be strong in front of the warriors she was expected to lead. Another tap and Black rose to his feet and the entire encampment watched in silence. Then Keez rode forward on his pony, negligently aiming his bow in her direction.

"Who are you... and what gives you the right to lead - the right to wear such armor?"

"I owe you no explanation, Keezheekoni. I am here to defend the People I swore allegiance to... to protect them from an evil I unwittingly brought to them. Now either stand beside me or stand behind me, but get out of my way. I have a debt to pay."

"And the armor?"

"Is none of your business," Koko flared.

"You dare??" he asked with a raised eyebrow as he cocked the bow.

"Try me," she insisted. "I have nothing left to lose."

"Very well, but when we return victorious...."

"It will still be none of your business. Now it is time to ride and find the men that threaten your wives and children... that threaten your homes and your way of life. Who rides with me?" Koko asked in a loud voice.

The warriors cheered and without another word she headed out in the direction Donoma had gone not very long before. The rest followed closely, Honaw at her right side as he had always been. Only Keez lagged behind, shrugging his shoulders at his father. He had done what he could but they were no closer to knowing Koko's intentions than before. Odahingum nodded and Keezheekoni urged his horse forward, not wanting to miss a minute of Koko Kanti's triumphant return.

The rest would wait until their victory was secure.

Chapter XIV

Donoma reached the place where she had been on her quest nights before. She sat still on Dapples and closed her eyes, breathing in what should have been peace. But something disturbed the tranquility of the place and her brow furrowed. So instead of stopping, they pushed on to a semi-hidden dell that held very mixed memories for her.

When Kya recognized where they were headed, he placed his hand on her arm, causing her to stop and look back at him. "I know where you are going, ka'eskone. Let me ride ahead and make sure it is safe. Something is out of place and I will not be responsible for it hurting you. Once I am certain everything is as it should be, I will take my place here to watch."

Donoma nodded her agreement, knowing Kya was here at Takoda's bidding and admitting to herself that something was not right. Whether or not it was her or her surroundings remained to be seen, but if Kya felt it enough to be concerned, she would allow him to take precautions.

So she closed her eyes and extended her senses while Kya rode ahead to check the little glade itself. In a few moments he returned, satisfied there was nothing hidden in the tiny space other than what naturally belonged there. Then he turned his horse out towards the plain to watch for trouble while Donoma slid from her mare and walked down the slight decline and out of sight.

She spread the blanket she had brought with her and then collected chips for a fire, clearing bits of grass from the obvious fire pit. Then she started a fire and closed her eyes, hoping to clear her mind. It had been a very hard and emotional few days and she needed to find her balance again.

How long she sat there she couldn't have honestly said. But she knew when she opened her eyes that it had been a while. Darkness had fallen at some point as the sun was rising again, but more than that, something had changed. Something was not as it had been when she started her meditation.

Donoma listened carefully - she heard the whisper of the wind, the ripple of the water that trickled along beside her, the snap of the fire and the crunch of horses chomping the grasses around them. She heard them, then let them move past her, knowing there was more. Then she heard it - the sound of breathing and a heartbeat she knew as well as her own.

She turned... and found Koko Kanti kneeling stoically at the edge of the small hill. She bit her lip, resolved to ignore the warrior, despite the chest armor she wore that indicated her status in Donoma's life. Then she realized Koko was bleeding and huffed - still angry beyond words, but unable and unwilling to let her suffer when she was able to heal the wounds she could see.

Wounds? She wondered, noting they were fresh - some in places they had not been before. What in the Great Spirit's name had gone on here? Surely the warriors of the tribe had not challenged Koko to battle?! They knew better....

Then Donoma rose from her blanket and walked swiftly towards Koko, watching as the other woman tracked her movement but made no effort to rise or greet her.

"What happened?" she asked without prelude. Koko dropped her eyes and focused on the ground - something she had never done before with anyone... especially not Donoma Chepi. But there was no way for her to look into those green eyes and say goodbye.

"It does not matter; I came only to say goodbye to you, Donoma Chepi. I cannot stay here any longer."

Donoma felt her heart break all over again, just as it had five cycles before when the woman before her had simply disappeared. She walked up the hill and saw Kya was gone, then she returned to stand beside Koko. "You swore to protect me as long as the armor I gave you protected you in battle. If your word means anything, you must remain until I am ready to return to the tribe."

Koko shook her head. She had tried to send Kya away, hoping that Donoma might allow her the privilege of chosen warrior once more. She did not realize he only went far enough to collect Donoma's medical kit after having witnessed the obvious injuries on Koko's body. Despite her insistence, there was really nowhere she wanted to be than beside her ka'eskone again. This was her first effort to do as Honaw suggested and see where Donoma's choice in the matter might lie.

"When I swore to protect you, there were no conditions. I will remain until you are ready to leave."

Donoma nodded - not that Koko could see the action. Her gaze remained locked on the hands that rested on her knees. Donoma stepped closer and gently cupped the bruised face, the action distinctly different from the harshness in her voice and the fire in her eyes. "We may be here a while," she insisted. "We will not go back until I know why you left... and why you returned. But first, we need to care for your injuries again. Now tell me what happened to undo all the healing I have already done."

Koko didn't move or speak, content to absorb the look and touch she had not felt upon her in far too long. Then without warning she was up and moving, pushing Donoma behind her and moving up the hill with the grace of a panther before Donoma could question her actions. Then Kya was standing in front of them, held by the throat until Donoma made it up the slight incline to convince Koko to release him.

"It is all right, Koko Kanti. This is my hestatanemo Kya... you remember Kya."

Koko nodded but frowned. "He was sneaking."

"He did not want to disturb my meditations. He brought supplies so I can heal you, but you need to let him go first. He will not hurt us, Koko. He simply wants to drop the bundle he brought and be on his way," Donoma assured her with a pointed look in Kya's direction; he caught her expression and nodded solemnly. Then he offered Koko the bundle he still held.

She dropped her hand from his throat and accepted the cache he offered, checking it carefully before handing it to Donoma. At her nod, Kya turned and left again, content to return to his watch post outside the tiny dell until Donoma dismissed him. He didn't honestly think Koko would endanger his sister, but he had promised Takoda to keep watch.

"Come," Donoma commanded, extending her hand. "Let me repair the damage that has been done to you while you explain to me how it occurred." Koko shook her head and would have returned to her place at the edge of the glade had Donoma not drawn her up short with a firm grasp on the chest plate. Koko could have easily escaped the hold, but not without hurting Donoma or destroying the armor, so she froze in place and waited.

"Look at me, Koko Kanti." Then Donoma waited until blue eyes slowly tracked to green. "Let me make something perfectly clear to you, warrior." Koko blinked but didn't remove her eyes from Donoma's. "I am still very, VERY angry with you... furious in fact. I do not know if I will ever get past that - it has been stirring in me for a long, long time. But regardless, I am a grown woman now... not some child you need to dissimilate the truth for. From now on, when I ask you a question, I expect you to answer me honestly - not evade replying or remaining silent. I am making the choices for me now, not you. Do we understand one another clearly?"

"Yes, ka'eskone."

Donoma drew in her breath sharply at the familiar address - it had always been like a warm blanket being wrapped around her heart when Koko had called her such. She peered at Koko, but found she was staring at the top of the dark head. "Koko," she said softly, drawing her head up so their eyes met once more. "I am angry, but I do not hate you. I could never hate you. Please stop looking away from me."

"Ka'eskone, I am only showing you the respect due you as a woman from a warrior. It is not my place to presume that you would welcome that kind of attention from me."

Donoma was genuinely ready to scream in frustration. "Regardless of your status as a warrior, Koko Kanti, we are both still women and we did grow up together as best friends. Despite our situation now, formality at this point seems a little bit extreme, do you not think?"

"Nevertheless," Koko insisted, "it is not my place to assume."

Donoma's eyes grew cold. "Very well... I will not force you to look upon that which drove you from the People. Now sit and allow me to care for your injuries."

Koko reached out to Donoma, but Donoma deliberately moved away from her touch. Koko let her hand fall and dropped gracelessly to the ground beside but not on Donoma's blanket. She winced in agony as the old wound complained even louder than the new and she hoped dearly that she had not ripped out the stitching in her side.

She untied the leather strips that bound the armor together on either side and eased the beadwork gently over her head. She placed it carefully beside her and turned her attention to unbuttoning her shirt while Donoma scooped a bit of creek water into her small pot and put it in the fire to heat rapidly. When she turned back to Koko, she gasped at the sight that met her eyes.

Koko's side was bleeding again and she had several lacerations on her arms and one very ugly cut on her neck. There were also a few more bruises forming that were side by side with the older green ones and what appeared to be a gash on her upper thigh, though with the dark cloth trousers on, it was hard to be certain.

"Lay down on your back, please," Donoma requested in a cool, civil tone. "I need to repair the damage that was done to your original injury before I turn my attention to the rest."

Koko moved without protest and lay down, shifting her arm out of the way so Donoma could work. The seer's touch was light and impersonal and still the goosebumps rose up all over Koko's body. She cleared her throat awkwardly.

"We went out to defend the tribe against a band of outlaws I inadvertently led here." She winced when Donoma pushed on the open wound.

"I am sorry, Koko, but it must be done to ensure we do not reintroduce infection into the area."

"I know," Koko admitted. "It is simply another pain I need to deal with." Then without missing a beat, she continued. "I had been chasing the gang leader, but he made it to his hideout where he and his men arranged an ambush for me. I was not supposed to live, but I escaped and I was supposed to be headed to my home. Instead, when I said 'home', Black brought me here."

There was no comment from Donoma except for her urging Koko to sit so she could tie off a bandage around the hole. Having Koko awake and alert while she was naked was a much different prospect for Donoma and she was working very hard to stay focused.

"Thank you for caring for me, ka'eskone."

"Please do not call me that," Donoma said softly. "It should mean something coming from you, and knowing it does not is hurtful for me."

"It means everything to me, ka'eskone. Just as you still do."

Donoma clenched her hands tightly together until her nails were cutting into the palms of her fists. She finished her wrapping and realized that she would not have enough bandage to wrap the others. But, she acknowledged silently to herself, I can at least clean them.

She took up her cloth once more started wiping the smallest cut first, wanting to make sure they were clear and free of dirt and debris. She remained intently alert to everything about Koko, but she didn't speak... she couldn't. She was not going to give up five cycles of anger and betrayal simply because Koko was home and speaking to her as though nothing had changed. *Everything* had changed and Koko was going to have to earn her place back in Donoma's heart and soul if that is truly where the warrior belonged and wanted to be.

Koko sighed, but she was beginning to see the course of action she would need to take. She proceeded to share her story. "I had managed to kill several of them and wound the rest, but not enough to stop them... only enough to slow them down. They had to stop and tend to their wounds before they could finish me off and I used the time to escape."

"When Black brought me here, it actually bought me a little time as they headed in the wrong direction for almost two days before they realized I was not where they thought I would be. That gave me time to heal enough to lead the warriors of the People into battle against them and defeat them soundly." A beat. "That is where all the blood and bruises are from."

Donoma nodded and kept her attention on what she was doing. When she was done with her torso, Donoma directed Koko to remove the trousers she wore. She kept her focus on the deep gash, wincing at the pain she knew Koko must be feeling, but the warrior had steeled herself against Donoma's touch and didn't flinch when she started cleaning the wound. Koko put a hand on Donoma's before she could wrap it, causing Donoma to jerk her hand away and Koko to shake her head.

"No, ka'eskone. I want to rid myself of the remainder of the battle. Let me wash away the dirt and grime - then you can decide if a bandage is still warranted." Donoma nodded curtly and moved away from Koko to start her own morning ablutions with the last bit of warm water. She deliberately ignored Koko, choosing instead to focus her thoughts on what she had been told.

She never intended to be here - her returning home to me... to the *People*... was nothing but a mistake, Donoma realized sadly. She never planned to come back and is going to leave as soon as she is well enough to travel away from here.

Donoma finished washing her face and straightening her hair, then moved back to her blanket to sit. All of the peace and tranquility she had achieved in her meditation the night before was gone, and left in its wake was heartache and confusion. Her shoulders slumped momentarily, then she deliberately straightened them and closed her eyes. She didn't even notice when Koko Kanti emerged from the creek and paused beside her before moving back to the guardian position she had been in.

Koko dried off as well as she could with her clothing, then searched through her bags for a suitable bandage to tie off her leg. When she came across the leathers Litonya had given her, she hesitated, then slid into them carefully. If she was going to lose Donoma for good, it would be because that is what Donoma chose and not what she herself had forced on them this time.

The leathers were soft and comfortable and felt like home in a way white man's clothing never could. It didn't hurt that they were warm as well, cutting the cool spring wind and creating a barrier Koko could appreciate. Satisfied she had done all she could at the moment, Koko resumed her place on her blanket and kept watch while Donoma continued on her spirit quest, putting the pain of her injuries to one side and forcing herself to stillness so she could listen as she hadn't since she'd left.

Once it was silent, she heard the Great Spirit's voice inside her head as clearly as if he had been sitting beside her. Koko knew if she closed her eyes, she would find the spirit of her father next to her. To his daughter, Honiahaka was the embodiment of spiritual guidance. It had always been so... even before he died. That conviction only became stronger after his death.

"What do you seek, my nahtona?" the warrior asked Koko as she sat in silence watching Donoma Chepi struggle for answers. "Why have you come to this place?"

"I seek nothing, Neho'e. I am here simply to fulfill a promise to my warrior advisor and her People. When this task is complete, I will leave if that is what my ka'eskone desires."

"That may be the truth, Koko Kanti, but it is not the entire truth; do not delude yourself into thinking it is. What do you seek, nahtona? What is it that *you* desire?"

"I wish to mate with Donoma Chepi, Neho'e, but that choice is no longer mine to make."

"Then perhaps you need to show her your desire, nahtona. She believes you left because you could no longer abide her presence. It was the only conclusion she could make given the facts she had in hand. You are going to have to rebuild her trust in you - begin again as if everything was new once more."

"And if she still does not accept that I want to bond with her as a mate?"

"Then you will be no worse off than you are now, and you can return to the life you have created for yourself in the white man's world. You have nothing to lose, Koko Kanti... and everything to gain." Honiahaka paused a moment and let his gaze follow Koko's to the visage in front of them. "She is a beautiful young woman, nahtona, and a most desirable choice as a lifebonded companion. Do not let your pride keep you from pursuing her if it would bring you happiness."

"It must make her happy as well," Koko insisted. "And I am not sure my presence does that any longer. Besides, I must return to the world of outlaws and bounty hunters soon. I have work that must be tended to. I do not think Donoma would be so willing to follow me there."

Without warning, Honiahaka became visible to Koko and his brown eyes burn red fire. "You said it was her choice, Koko Kanti! How can she make a choice if you do not give her the option to choose?!"


"NO, Koko Kanti!! This is about you and your honor, but there is more to it than that and you know it. Why are you so afraid to be happy?"

Blue eyes stared at Honiahaka sullenly for a long moment before Koko dropped her gaze to the ground and shrugged. Then her father grasped her chin firmly and brought Koko's eyes up to meet his. "No, nahtona. I raised you better than this. I taught you to stand up and fight for what you believe in. Now either you tell Donoma the truth and let her choose, or you tell Donoma the truth and claim her. Either way, the time has come for you to make the truth of your feelings known to her. Stop cowering in fear over what might happen and take the chance to live a little. You might find happiness." He blew out a frustrated breath. "Nahtona... give her the choice."

Koko's shoulders sagged but she finally nodded her agreement. "I will do as you say, Neho'e."

He patted her knee. "That is my nahtona. Thank you, Koko. You will see that I am right." He rose from his place beside her and she reached out and caught his hand.

"Can you not remain a little while, Neho'e? I have missed you and your guidance so much."

Honiahaka covered her hand with his and squeezed it gently. "I am never far away, nahtona, and I always hear when you speak to me. But I must return to the land of my fathers - your Nahko'e is waiting for my arrival. However, if you need me, I will visit you again." He paused and then smiled at her. "You and Donoma Chepi have our blessing, Koko Kanti."

"Thank you, Neho'e. Tell Nahko'e...."

"She knows, nahtona, as do I. Be happy, Koko Kanti. You deserve that."

"I will try, Neho'e. I give you my word as a warrior." Honiahaka brushed a kiss over her bowed head and when Koko finally looked up, he was gone.

Chapter XV

Donoma felt herself finally settle as her breathing evened out and she shut out all the extraneous noise around her. She lost all sense of time as she waited for her vision to clear, hoping beyond hope that the Great Spirit would allow her to finish her vision quest. A touch on her head caused Donoma to slowly open her eyes, only to find Rachel's compassionate blue eyes staring back at her.

"Rae'l?" she asked in surprised recognition. "What are you doing here?"

Rachel shifted a little closer, then sat down cross-legged and reached for Donoma's hand. "The Great Spirit sent me to check on you, Donoma Chepi. There has been a great deal of turmoil surrounding you lately and we are concerned."

Donoma pulled her hand from Rachel's grasp and clasped hers tightly together in her lap. Her eyes shuttered, leaving Rachel only the barest glimpse of the child she had known in the beautiful, stubborn young woman now sitting in front of her.

"There is no need for you to be concerned, Rae'l. Everything is all right."

"Is it really, ka'eskone? I sense much anger and confusion in you."

"I have been angry for a long time, Rae'l. It is nothing to concern yourself with," Donoma reiterated.

"I think it is, Donoma," came Rachel's mild rejoinder. "It is time you let go of the anger you have held in your heart for my nahtona and focused instead on all the good you shared together before she...."

"Before she left me? Before she walked out of my life and the lives of the People without a word of explanation or even a goodbye??" Green eyes glowed in their ire. "I do not think you understand what you are asking of me, Rae'l. I took care of her... healed her in spite of my anger and everything... only to discover that her return was nothing more than a mistake. And she is completely unwilling to talk to me and tell me her reasons for doing so. You are asking me to be a bigger person than I am, Rae'l."

"I do not think so, ka'eskone. I think you want someone to give you permission to release the anger that has held you captive for so long. I am doing that - I am telling you it is time to give up the anger and darkness in your heart. Koko only did what she thought was best...."

"What *she* thought!!!" Donoma flared. "She did not bother to speak to me - not to talk about her decision or to ask my advice. In everything else we were always open and honest, but in this... it made me feel as though she had lied to me all those years - that I was simply a child to be humored and not the advisor she claimed that I was." Her fury was evident.

Rachel knew there was little she could say to Donoma that wouldn't come across as patronizing to her or as a protective mother. She reached out again, glad that Donoma did not flinch away from her touch. She stroked the blonde hair for a few minutes, formulating the best way to reach Donoma. Finally... "I want to ask a favor of you, ka'eskone. I want you to talk to Koko Kanti about this - be angry at her if you need to be. I think she deserves a little of your anger at least. But she deserves it from you face to face, ka'eskone. She cannot give you her side of things if you are unwilling to hear what she has to say."

"I was willing, Rae'l. She refused. She intends to leave... again."

"Then it is up to you to prevent that, Donoma. Make her stay and listen." Rachel paused and drew a deep breath, feeling her way cautiously. "Donoma... ka'eskone... what do you want from her?"

Green eyes welled with tears though Donoma didn't allow them to fall. "I do not know anymore, Rae'l. I only wish it did not hurt so much."

"Then maybe you should consider which would hurt more - insisting that she stay and talk to you or allowing her to leave without explanation. But if she comes to talk to you, child, I ask that you listen to her with an open heart and mind. It is possible that she did what she did for the right reasons, even if it ended up being all wrong. My daughter loves you, Donoma, as she always has done. Please do not hold that against her."

"I wish I could believe that, Rae'l... I really do. But I have lived the past five cycles knowing that she did not love me enough to talk to me or to say goodbye. I sincerely doubt there is much love in her heart for me. However," Donoma continued before Rachel could protest, "if she chooses to speak to me before she leaves once more, I will do my best to listen to what she has to say and judge it fairly."

Rachel nodded. It wasn't the unequivocal support she was hoping for, but under the circumstances.... "That's the best I can ask, Donoma. Thank you."

"You were always so good to me, Rae'l. It is the least I can do to repay some of your kindness."

"You were a joy to my heart, Donoma. I always blessed the day the Great Spirit led you to us." Donoma bowed her head and blushed profusely; Rachel smiled and stroked her hair. "Do not be embarrassed, my young friend. One day... one day you will know the difference you made in my life and the life of my daughter. Until then, I want you to know that you retain a special place in my heart."

"As you do in mine, Rae'l."

Rachel smiled lovingly at the woman she had always considered a second daughter. "I must go now, ka'eskone. Honiahaka is waiting for my return to the land of his fathers, and I do not want him to worry because I am gone for too long. But if you ever need to speak to me, I will be listening for your call. Be strong, Donoma Chepi. Your life is going to take an interesting turn very soon."

Donoma looked up then to ask Rachel what her cryptic words meant. But there was no one there. Donoma closed her eyes again, hoping to stave off the headache she could feel coming on. Rachel had given her much to think about - the question was... what did she want to do?


Aucaman rode up to where Kya was seated on his mount, eyes wary and alert. "Anything?" he asked without preamble.

"No," Kya replied shortly, not willing to share Koko's lightning reflexes against him with anyone - for Donoma's sake as much as his. Despite the victory she had just led the tribe to, Koko's standing in the community was uncertain, and she and Donoma needed to work things out alone one way or another before action was taken against her. If word got round that she had laid hands on him... well, her defense would be that she was protecting Donoma. And that would only be enough if Donoma forgave her.

"Are you sure they are all right? Maybe I should check...."

"Do not, hestatanemo," Kya cautioned with a hand on Aucaman's shoulder. "Though I do not think Koko would react with malice, she would respond to you as a threat to Donoma's safety. Donoma was tending to Koko Kanti's wounds - I delivered her kit myself."

Aucaman nodded. Donoma would have sent Kya away if she was tending to the damage done by the white raiders. Despite her obvious upset over Koko's actions five cycles ago, she was very protective of the image Koko worked to achieve. "Do you need me to relieve you, Kya? You have been here for quite some time."

"I am fine, Aucuman, but perhaps you should let Neho'e know it might be a while. I believe Donoma Chepi intends to find the answers she seeks from Koko Kanti before she allows either of them to leave this place."

Aucaman's eyes widened. "That could be a very long time, hestatanemo."

Kya sighed. "I know. Two more stubborn People were never born."

"I will bring you back something warm to eat. And we will decide what to do after you have eaten."

"It would be appreciated," Kya admitted.

"Then I will return shortly."

Kya watched Aucaman out of sight, then turned his focus back to the plains that surrounded them, wishing that soon Donoma and Koko would emerge from the dell that currently hid them. Once they had things settled between them, Kya hoped things would return to a semblance of normal life... whatever that turned out to be.


Odahingum walked around the perimeter of the encampment. There was an air of expectation that had long been missing from his People. Koko Kanti's return had changed the very air around them and everyone seemed in a better frame of mind than they had for a long time. Takoda caught up with him when he was about halfway around and they stood together watching Aucaman return to them at a steady pace.

He jumped to the ground as he reached them, patting the pony on its hind quarters to send it back to the herd until he was ready to leave again. Takoda lifted a brow in question.

"I told Kya I would bring him some hot food and then we could decide how to proceed. He seems to think that this could take a while - that Donoma will not permit either of them to leave until she finds satisfaction in Koko's answers to her questions."

Odahingum covered his eyes. "They do realize that with the coming of the first Chinook, we leave the winter camp to follow the herd? That we are already behind?"

"I do not think Donoma Chepi is concerned about that, honored chieftain. Besides, having seen Koko Kanti fight as she did only hours from a sickbed, I believe ka'eskone could not be in better or safer hands. No matter why she left, Koko will not leave Donoma unprotected while she is here."

"I do not think Donoma will allow Koko Kanti to be anywhere she is not at this point, Odahingum, but what happens once she finds the answers she seeks remains to be seen. It would be better if we were some distance away. It will force them to resolve this on their own."

Odahingum nodded his agreement to Takoda's words. "Very well," he said. "Tomorrow we strike the tents and follow the herd towards the open plain. They will catch up with us or they will be here when we return for the cold season once more." He turned to Aucaman who was waiting patiently. "Tell Honaw and Keezheekona to dismantle Donoma Chepi's and Koko Kanti's dwellings and deliver them to just beyond where they are now. Then you go fetch Kya and bring him home. There is much to be done in preparation for our move."

Aucaman bowed his head slightly in acknowledgment. "I will do as you say, honored chieftain. I am certain there will be plenty of hands willing to help," he added before continuing on into the encampment. Soon there was a lot of activity as Litonya oversaw the packing up of both Donoma's and Koko's personal possessions and the young men started to disassemble the homes.

Odahingum and Takoda watched the activity for a while before turning back to look at one another. "I hope this works," Odahingum commented.

"I think it will," Takoda said. "I have a good feeling." Then they resumed their walk around the perimeter, breathing in the cool spring air with a sense of satisfaction. Today had been a good day - tomorrow would be better.


Koko sat quietly listening to the sounds she had missed for five long years as she let her mind wander. Slowly she was shedding the persona of Reb Stone and returning to the roots she knew as Koko Kanti. She sighed silently, wondering if that pursuit was a particularly wise one - no matter what happened... or not... between her and Donoma, the truth was Koko had another life now. Did she want to abandon everything she had achieved to return to the People? Would Donoma be willing to come with her if she didn't?

Koko shook her head in frustration. She had never had so much trouble listening before. She consciously cleared her mind, allowing no thought except for the sounds she could hear around her. There was the wind, a constant on the Plains; the rustle of grass; Donoma Chepi's breathing and the heartbeat that beat in time with Koko's own. At the back of her listening, just inside her hearing range, Koko heard the sound of horses moving rapidly toward them.

Without hesitation, Koko moved swiftly and silently to her feet, jumping onto the rise to see Kya riding towards the intruders slowly. Even from this distance, she was able to recognize Honaw, Keez, Aucaman and the other couple of warriors were familiar but not so much that she could put a name to the face. Didn't really matter - she knew they were part of Odahingum's tribe. She watched as they started to unload something from behind the pack horses until Honaw looked up and caught her fierce gaze. He called a halt to the activity and rode over to where Koko was standing with her arms crossed over her chest.

"Koko Kanti," Honaw greeted with a nod of his head.

"Honaw," she returned with a brow arched in question.

"Odahingum has decided to move the tribe; it is past time to begin following the herd. The Chinook has begun to blow."

"Several days ago, as a matter of fact. Why did you not move then?"

"Donoma insisted we stay put until her vision quest was over." Honaw sighed. "Everyone believes you are the answer to her search... everyone except Donoma. She refuses to see what the Great Spirit has done in this instance, but Neho'e assured Odahingum it is time to go. You are here to protect her now. We have brought your homes and belongings by his command."

Both brows flew straight up into her hairline. "Excuse me?" Honaw sighed, wondering why he always got stuck with this sort of assignment. He took a deep breath, but Koko waved her hands to stop his explanation before it could start. "I understood what you said, Honaw. I just cannot comprehend the reasoning behind it."

"Takoda believes that Donoma will not allow you to be anywhere she is not at this point... at least until she finds the answers she seeks from you. He thinks it would be better if we were some distance away, forcing you to resolve the situation on your own."

"I see," Koko said calmly. "In that case, I would like you to place them in the dell. Come with me and I will show you where."

Honaw signaled to the rest of his band, then jumped from his horse and followed Koko back down the incline. He hoped Donoma would ignore them until he was gone. He had no desire to face her wrath after the last few days. Personally, he would be glad to be far away from the two of them when everything came to a head.


Litonya didn't say anything as she and her daughters-in-law packed up first Koko Kanti's possessions and then Donoma Chepi's. But as soon as they were finished and had returned to their own homes to take care of their own preparations, Litonya turned to Takoda with questions in her eyes.

"Takoda, what are we doing? Why are we leaving the two of them out here alone... without the protection of the tribe? Have you seen...?"

He wrapped his arms around her in comfort and Litonya snuggled into his embrace - it had always been this way between them and Litonya sighed in contentment. Takoda ran his hands gently over her arms and back, then kissed her head before he spoke.

"I have, Litonya. Late last night after Koko left to follow Donoma on her spirit quest. What happens now is between the two of them - there is nothing more we can do and our continued interference will do nothing but ensure Donoma's stubborn behavior. To that end we will leave. They are both well aware of the habits of the People; they know how to find us if and when they decide to rejoin us."

Litonya lifted her head to look Takoda in the eyes. "You do not think they will?"

He shrugged. "I do not know," he replied honestly. "I cannot see clearly on much involving the two of them," he said with a wry tone. "I know it is a possibility given that Koko Kanti does have another life out in the white man's world. She may choose to return to it. Donoma could choose to return with her or she could decide to stay here and be miserable alone. Or Koko could decide to return to the fold of the People and resume her life among us, Litonya. I do not know what will happen - I only know what I see as options for the two of them. Odahingum assures me that is the best I will get in regards to the two of them because they are my daughters and the Great Spirit will not give me insight where they are concerned... just like any other parent."

He felt Litonya shake with laughter within the circle of his arms and smiled sympathetically. Then she shifted in his embrace so she was sitting up next to him yet still had his arms around her. "Well, if they do not get things settled between them to *my* satisfaction, I will exercise my prerogative as their Nahko'e and do something drastic. The tribe cannot continue to live with Donoma's darkness... not when her chance for happiness is right here waiting to be claimed. I will not permit her stubbornness to be a deterrent to that end."

Takoda squeezed her tightly, then ran his hands over her arms again in a comforting manner. "We cannot interfere in such a manner, Litonya. It must be their decision for better or worse."

"You think so, Takoda? Just try me. I have been patient with these two long enough." He gazed at her lovingly, then shook his head in humored dismay. "I just want them to find the happiness that we have known, Takoda. They deserve to be happy."

"They do, but it must be their choice, Nutta. Otherwise it means nothing."

Litonya huffed. "That is not fair."

"No," Takoda agreed, "but it is life."

"I could do a much better job than they are doing with it at the moment."

Takoda laughed. "I think we all could, Litonya. But have a little faith. I have a feeling things will turn out all right for them in the end. It just may not be the ending *we* want."

"You think they will leave the People and return to the white man's world," Litonya said flatly. Takoda didn't speak aloud though his eyes gave their own answer. "That will be all right, Takoda, as long as they do so together. We will deal with the rest as it comes."

Takoda smiled at Litonya and kissed her tenderly. "How did you get so wise?" he asked when they parted.

"I married a wise man, Nutta. How could some of that not rub off on me?" This time when Takoda laughed, Litonya joined him. The rest of the clan wondered at the sound given the week they had just been through, but for the shaman and his wife, it was a respite they needed. And it was enough.

Chapter XVI

Donoma heard the commotion at the back of the small hill she was sheltered by, but she did not bother to turn around to see what was going on. Her hearing told her the people making the noise were friendly and that was enough for her. She knew Koko would take care of any problems that arose. And at the moment she was trying to find the balance in her soul she so desperately craved. Her conversation with Rachel had thrown everything out of kilter worse than it had been before, and the turmoil was making her shake from the inside out.

Koko watched Donoma with one eye while overseeing the raising of their homes side by side. She could see the deep, even breathing and the faintest hint of trembling in the small frame. Koko wanted to go to Donoma, but had no desire to do so in front of so many witnesses. What was between them was private, and Koko intended to keep it that way if she could. A look in Honaw's direction showed her that the warriors were nearly done with their assembly and would soon be ready to leave.

Keez and Kya brought down the possessions - bedding for Koko since she already had her saddlebags; more personal possessions for Donoma. They placed the items just outside the doorway, assuming correctly that both women would prefer to put their own stuff away. Then the warriors nodded to Koko to indicate the completion of their task and their readiness to leave. She nodded back in thanks and dismissed them. Only Honaw lagged behind.

"You know the path we follow, Koko Kanti, but there is no expectation for your return." He paused to swallow. "I wish you much success in your endeavor. It will be good to see you both whole once more."

Koko would have commented, but Honaw did not give her a chance. Instead he turned and disappeared up the hill, mounting his horse and leading his fellow warriors back to the encampment. Tomorrow they would follow the herd away from the winter camp.

Koko looked at the belongings and back at Donoma. The shaking seemed to have stopped for the moment, so she decided to put things away. Hers was easy - the furs for her bedding went down quickly, though not without some effort and a good deal of pain. She breathed for a long moment, willing the pain to the back of her mind to deal with later. Then she placed the saddlebags on the other side of the space and stepped back out to take care of Donoma's things.

Bedding first again... mostly because the sky was rapidly becoming overcast. She dropped it rather haphazardly, planning to straighten it after the rest was brought into the dry tent. Koko went back out and grabbed up the remainder of Donoma's possessions, groaning aloud against her will when pain shot up her side again in a sharp, blinding wave.

From her position on the ground, Donoma heard Koko groan in pain and opened her eyes. She turned back towards where she knew the warrior had been meditating, eyes widening when she saw the changes that had taken place in such a relatively short period of time. She noticed the storm gathering around her and headed towards her home. Then she stopped short just inside the doorway, stunned at what she saw.

Koko lay on the floor in a fetal position, her breathing short and shallow and her eyes closed. Scattered around her were all of Donoma's belongings. Donoma bit her lip and crossed to kneel beside Koko's head, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. Blue eyes fluttered open and Donoma winced in sympathy at the pain she saw reflected in them.

"Turn over for me, Koko. I need to see what damage has been done to cause you to hurt so badly." Koko lay still, not moving. Donoma pushed as easily as she could to roll Koko to her back. "Nutta... work with me here. I cannot take care of you if you will not let me. Please, Koko...." The rumble of thunder accompanied her words and the roar of rain swiftly followed.

Recognition finally dawned in Koko's eyes and she allowed Donoma to ease her back into a reclining position, though she couldn't stop the moan that escaped her lips. Donoma sucked in a breath when she saw that once again her handiwork had been destroyed and wondered in passing what had caused the injury to start bleeding again.

"We need to remove your shirt, Koko. Then I need to find a way to close your wound without trying to sew it shut, as the stitching obviously will not hold there at the moment."

"Help me stand," Koko whispered, as though the effort was costing her greatly.

"Koko, I do not think...."

"Please, ka'eskone. I do not want to bleed to death all over my new leathers," Koko joked weakly.

Donoma glared at her. "I do not want you to bleed to death at all, Koko." But she stood and offered Koko her hands, bracing herself for the pulling of weight against her deceptively sturdy frame. It took a bit of effort and grunting on both their parts, but eventually, Koko found herself in an upright position.

She loosened the ties around her neck and Donoma eased the shirt over Koko's chest. Then Koko struggled to get it over her head. After several long minutes of exertion, she managed to get it over her head and off one arm. Donoma took over from there and slid it down the other, laying the shirt aside and unwrapping the bloody bandages from Koko's torso. Before she could do more, Koko's hand on her arm stopped her in her tracks.

"My trousers, ka'eskone. Help me remove them as well."

Donoma looked at Koko askance, but the determination in the warrior's eyes convinced her to help first and ask questions later. "Stand still," she commanded, and loosened the ties at Koko's waist. Then she knelt and slid the pants down the long legs, tapping each one to tell Koko when to lift. Koko's hands went to Donoma's shoulders for balance, and soon she was standing in the center of Donoma's tent naked except for the bandage she wore around her thigh.

"Stay here," Koko commanded in a firm voice that was now just above a whisper. Then she stepped out into the pouring rain and just stood with her arms extended outward and her face turned towards the sky.

She let the rain beat down on her a long moment, rinsing away the blood once more and allowing it to cleanse her... body and soul. She removed the bandage from her thigh and handed it to Donoma when she extended her hand for it, then turned and walked into her home. In a moment she was returning with her saddlebags in hand and stepping back into Donoma's dwelling. Without a word, Donoma took Koko's arm and led her to her bed, easing her down and waiting expectantly.

Koko closed her eyes and concentrated on breathing - the whole day had cost her far more than she had to expend, and the last was particularly agonizing. A warm hand on her face caused her to blink open her eyes and Koko was surprised by the compassion staring back at her from bright green eyes.

"What can I do to ease your suffering, Koko Kanti? My anger aside, I have no desire to see you in such pain."

Koko smiled wanly. Donoma had never been one to see anyone suffer if she could do something to prevent it. "This helps, ka'eskone," covering the hand on her skin. Koko felt Donoma jerk but she didn't release her hand and gradually Donoma relaxed again. "But I have something in my bag that will help stem the bleeding without you needing to stitch the skin again or bandage it up immediately. It is painful, but it is also very effective."

Donoma waited, then finally broke the silence with a sly grin. "Would you care to loosen your grip on my hand and describe to me what I am looking for or do you expect it to make its way out of your bag to me of its own free will?"

Koko smiled sheepishly. "My apologies, Donoma. I do not think my brain is engaged as it should be." She moved her hand from on top of Donoma's and immediately felt the loss when Donoma removed her warmth from Koko's face. She looked at Koko expectantly. "In the bottom of this bag, I think," tapping the one nearest to her, "you will find a small kit. Inside is a folded paper with a white powdery substance. Cover the wound with the powder." Koko lay down and covered her eyes with her hand, waiting for Donoma to follow her instructions.

Donoma dug through the bag carefully until she found the kit, then searched through it for the paper Koko had described. She sniffed it carefully, then scrunched her nose up as the urge to sneeze became overwhelming. A taste on her tongue made her pucker up and shake her head. Then she shook the powder out onto the raw, open injury, watching in fascination as the powder bubbled up. Donoma heard Koko hiss at the sensation, but otherwise there was no reaction from the warrior.

After a few minutes, the bubbling stopped, and so had the bleeding. Donoma sighed and so did Koko. "Now what?" the seer asked softly.

"Now," Koko groaned and rolled slightly to look out onto the wet but no longer stormy landscape, "I take the wet fur and return to my own home. If you want another dry piece of bedding, I am afraid you will need to come with me and bring it back for yourself. I am afraid I have done all that I can and more than I should today."

Donoma glared at Koko and planted her hands on her hips. "Are you stupid all the time now, Koko Kanti?" her anger clear. Blue eyes blazed at the insult and Koko would have responded if Donoma had not continued speaking. "I will not permit you to lie on a wet fur and I will not allow you to leave here to go anywhere... not even to your own tent. You are not in any condition to be left alone for any reason - do I make myself clear?"

Koko bit her lip at the familiarity of it all and nodded, her ire cooled at the true concern and anxiety clear in Donoma's eyes and voice.

"Good," Donoma said after a moment. "Now, I am going to go gather your bedding and bring it over here, then I will take care of finding a place to dry the fur. Are you dry now?" Another nod. "Very well - do not move... I will be right back."

Donoma was indeed back after only a moment, and she took her time setting up Koko's bedding on the opposite side of the firepit Honaw had thoughtfully made sure was ready for her use. When she was satisfied it was as comfortable as she could make it, she crossed back over to Koko and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. Koko forced her eyes open and faced Donoma.

"Come, my warrior... it is time for you to rest."

Koko didn't answer but her heart swelled. That was the second time Donoma had used an endearment when addressing her. There was still a possibility for forgiveness. First, however, she wanted to be well and in her right mind, something she was confident was not possible at the moment. She rose slowly, leaning heavily on Donoma for support and shuffled to her bed. Koko dropped the wet fur and eased down as slowly as she could manage, letting Donoma tuck her in carefully. She closed her eyes when Donoma brushed still wet hair from her face.

"Sleep, Koko Kanti. It is the best medicine I know."

Koko smiled and was asleep before Donoma could say any more. Donoma sat beside her watching her breathe for another very long moment before she rose and gathered the wet fur and bandages from around her and headed outside to find a place to drape them to dry.

Then she went back inside and lit the fire Honaw had laid, watching the flickering flame and the warrior that rested on the other side of it. It looked to be a long night.


Koko blinked heavy eyelids open slowly, trying to orient herself. Her first incoherent thought was attempting to figure out where she was and why she was naked. Her second thought came as she realized she was alone and by the look of the sun streaming in the open doorway, probably has been for some time. She blinked again, moving her head slowly as she tried to put all the pieces together, but she was having difficulty deciding what was real and what was imagined.

Koko threw the blanket covering her body off, wincing with the motion and flinching when she was the raw wound that was scabbing over. No wonder she felt as though she had been back-kicked by a horse and run over by a wagon train for good measure. She reached to pull the blanket back into place and groaned at the pain she felt rush through her system. Donoma was immediately at her side, tucking her in again and checking her for fever.

"Donoma Chepi?" Koko asked, trying to make her mind believe what her eyes were seeing. She had been dreaming, hadn't she? But the bullet hole in her side attested to the fact that what she remembered was more than dreams - it was real. Koko reached out a hand towards Donoma, pleased when Donoma didn't flinch away from her touch. "Are you real?"

Donoma caught her hand and brought it to her face. "As real as you are, Koko Kanti. But you were taken with fever again. I am going to bring you some broth, then you are going to sleep some more so you can regain your strength. No more fighting."

"So says my warrior advisor?"

"If that is what it takes, warrior. You are not going to undo all my effort to make you whole again by getting sick now, do you understand me?"

Koko grinned weakly. "I understand, ka'eskone. I have missed you, Donoma Chepi."

Donoma didn't answer aloud, but she gave Koko a long, telling look before she rose and headed back out into the sunshine where she had broth on the small fire. Koko closed her eyes for a moment, and the next thing she knew, Donoma was shaking her awake.

"Can you manage on your own, Koko or do you require some assistance?"

"If you could help me sit up, I think I can eat on my own. Sitting up is going to be the problem."

"Are you in much pain then?"

"My whole body hurts, ka'eskone. But at least I am alive to feel the pain. I have a feeling I could be much worse off than I am. What happened?"

"What do you remember?"

"Bits... I am not sure what is real and what I imagined. But given the hole in my belly, I have to think that most of what I remember is real. How long has it been?" They shifted her into a reclining position against Donoma's chest and Koko slowly sipped at the warm broth, realizing instantly how hungry she was, but knowing better than to rush.

"That depends on what you are asking, Koko. It has been six days since you rode into the winter encampment draped over Black's back. It has been two days since you led the warriors of the tribe out to defeat the white enemy who did this to you and since Honaw and my hestatanemos brought our homes and belongings into this place and set them up for our use."

"I have been asleep for two days??"

"No, Koko," Donoma corrected carefully. "You only slept through one day... and two nights," guarded green eyes just barely twinkling. "And you are going to sleep through at least one more before I let you up out of bed."

"But...." Koko whined, not caring about her warrior image at this point.

Now the green gaze glared. "Do not attempt to argue with me, warrior. I will not allow you to be reckless as my kinsmen did. You should not have been allowed to chase the white men who followed you - Honaw and the rest of the warriors could have managed. And do not tell me you had to lead them, Koko Kanti. They are perfectly capable - you trained them well."

"It was a matter of...."

"If the word 'honor' comes out of your mouth, I will not be responsible for what happens." Koko leaned back enough to look into Donoma's eyes to find dead seriousness reflected back at her. She swallowed hard.

"I am sorry, ka'eskone. I am afraid I have caused you much work that should not have been your burden. I was not supposed to be here; Black was supposed to take me home... to the home I have among the white men. I never planned...."

"I know, Koko Kanti. We had this conversation already. What I do not yet understand is why you left me in the first place. Nor do I know how long you plan to remain in this place with me before you return to the world of the white man."

"We talked about this?" Koko asked and pushed the remainder of the broth away from her. Donoma looked into the bowl with a frown until she noted there were only dregs. She placed the bowl beside her and nodded at Koko. The warrior frowned, then her vision cleared. "Oh yes... after you dressed my wounds the first time- before my vision quest when I spoke to Honiahaka. You were very angry."

"I am still very angry, Koko, but that would never interfere with my care of you. Donoma's eyes widened. "Wait... you spoke with Honiahaka?" She blinked at Koko's nod. "I spoke to Rae'l."

"I miss my Nahko'e and my Neho'e. I wonder why she came to you," Koko mused softly.

"She came on your behalf, warrior. Perhaps you should think about why she would come to me for you like that," Donoma said as she slid out from beneath Koko's weight. "However," she added, not allowing Koko the chance to respond, "right now, you need to sleep."

"Actually, right now I need to go outside. I have to, ka'eskone."

"Then you have to allow me to help you, Koko. Your body cannot heal if you continue to abuse it so."

"I know, ka'eskone. I am stubborn... not stupid. We will move slowly so that we do not injure you or do more damage to me in the process."

"It sounds as though you have been through this before," Donoma said evenly as she braced for Koko's weight against her.

"Never this badly, but more than I would like," Koko confessed as she rose to her feet. They walked slowly to the area Donoma had set aside for a privy and when Koko was done, they moved just as slowly back to Donoma's home. Koko breathed a sigh of relief when her head finally hit the fur under her head. "I do not remember it being so hard before."

"It will get better as you heal," Donoma promised, but that was all she said before moving back out into the sunlight. Koko hardly had time to miss her before her eyes closed and she returned to a deep, healing sleep.

Chapter XVII

The return of daylight caused Koko's blue eyes to open with a feeling of satisfaction. She stretched gingerly, glad there was only a residual ache in her bones and pleased at the lack of actual pain she felt in her belly. All in all it could have been much worse and she knew it; she was glad Donoma had been right about needing rest to heal. She blinked, trying to clear the sleep from her eyes, then turned her head, noticing Donoma's tired countenance across the fire. Koko kept her eyes glued to Donoma's face as she allowed her knowledge of the last few days to roll through her consciousness.

She remembered Donoma's anger and her compassion; she recalled the conversation with her father. She remembered the men who were chasing her and the warriors that followed her into battle. Koko remembered everything. Now she just had to decide what to do about it.

She shifted on the furs and was pinned in place by suddenly piercing green eyes. Koko smiled, but Donoma merely continued to stare at her. "Donoma?"

Green eyes blinked and Donoma stretched before sitting up and rubbing her face. "Koko Kanti," a cross between a greeting and an accusation. "How do you feel?"

"Much better, actually. You were right again... as usual," offering another smile.

Donoma's lips twitched, but she didn't allow them to crease into a full smile. "Good. Do you feel like you could be up for a while then? I need to air out the tent and wash the illness from it."

"I could help... or maybe I should go wash the illness from my body," when Donoma's eyes grew glacial at the suggestion.

"You will let me help you do that Koko Kanti. Until I get a chance to check your injuries and can be sure that things are healed enough...."

"I am not a child, Donoma," Koko stated firmly and with vehemence. "I can take care of myself."

"Not until I give you leave to do so, warrior. I am also no longer a child you can make decisions for. I am a healer who has learned my craft through the blood of my clansmen and the sweat of my own brow." She paused and took a deep breath, willing her anger down. "Warrior, this has nothing to do with everything else that is still between us. This has to do with my unwillingness to be irresponsible about your care again." She rose from her pallet and crossed to Koko's side, extending her hands down to her. "Come... let me examine you. If I am satisfied with your progress, I will allow you the privacy to bathe in while I air out my home."

Koko accepted Donoma's hands, easing into a sitting position before rising to her feet. Donoma released her hands as soon as she was sure Koko was steady on her feet, letting her hands roam impersonally over the rough and smooth sections of skin while she inspected the damage.

Koko tried to remain unmoving, allowing the different sensations Donoma's touch was causing to wash past her conscious mind. She was focused so hard that it took Donoma cupping her face in both hands to bring her back to the present. Koko looked into green eyes clouded with worry.

"Ka'eskone?" covering Donoma's hands only to have Donoma slip free of her grasp.

"You had me worried, Koko Kanti. You seemed to disappear for a moment."

"I am sorry, ka'eskone. I was trying to clear my mind."

Donoma smirked. "I hope it worked." Then she turned serious. "Your wounds look much better, Koko. I believe you will be all right on your own for a bit of time; just be careful. You are still likely to be very weak."

"I will not go far, ka'eskone."

Donoma nodded and watched as Koko went back into her home to gather her bits of soap and drying cloth to carry with her to the creek. When she was out of sight, Donoma went back into her tent and began to drag everything out, intent on taking advantage of the warming sun and fresh air as much as she was able.

In only a few minutes Donoma had everything laid out and the bottom of her home rolled up to allow the breeze to blow through. She carefully tamped the fire out and swept the ashes from the doorway, scattering them carefully into the wind. Then she took the furs and blankets that Koko had been treated on and walked down to the creek to give them a good scrubbing, well away from where Koko was bathing.

Washing them was easy... wringing them out to dry was something else again and by the time Donoma had finished with them, she and everything she wore was soaking wet. She sighed and struggled out of the wet leather. "Well," she muttered to herself, "I needed to do this anyway. I just wish I had brought something to dry off with." Then Donoma got down to the business of cleaning herself.

It didn't take long, but she felt much better by the time she was done. She spread the wet things on top of the tall grass and having little recourse, padded back to their small camp naked as the day she was born. Not that being naked bothered her - on the contrary, it was quite liberating - yet it still wasn't something Donoma would have chosen to do in front of Koko. There were too many things left between them to assume that sort of intimacy. But there was nothing to be done for it.

So Donoma shook the excess water off her body and walked back into the camp, ignoring the stare she could feel coming from fiery blue eyes before she disappeared into her home to change into the clean, dry clothing she found among her things.

Koko looked down as soon as she realized she was staring, but by then Donoma was out of sight. She sighed. This was going to be a lot harder than she thought, because Donoma was certainly not the child she had left behind. Suddenly the fact that Donoma was a woman was coming home to Koko in a very real way.

When Donoma stepped from her home, she was combing through her hair, gently removing the tangles with her fingers. Koko itched for the privilege of doing it herself as she had before, but knew well there were things that had to be settled between them first. Then perhaps Donoma would consider something more than the friendship they had always known.

Koko remained in her place, facing out from the camp looking towards the west. There was nothing to see in that direction more than any other, but it afforded Donoma the opportunity to decide when they would speak.

Donoma stood watching the warrior for a long moment. Her back was ramrod straight and Donoma knew it would be up to her to initiate any conversation between them. Even if she was misunderstanding Koko's words from earlier in regards to the deference a warrior showed to a woman, the fact of the matter was she knew how stubborn this particular warrior could be when she made her mind up - her five year disappearance was proof enough of that. She took a deep breath and came around to stand in front of Koko Kanti, waiting to be acknowledged.

Koko looked at Donoma briefly before dropping her gaze to her lap, giving Donoma the position of power. For this time, what happened would be Donoma's choice. Donoma sighed silently - it was impossible to hold onto her anger when Koko reminded her so much of a chastised child waiting for punishment to be meted out. She took a seat next to Koko, but facing her as well. Then Donoma reached out and cupped Koko's chin, bringing their eyes back to a level.

Green eyes searched blue for a long time and Donoma wondered at the trembling she could feel through the touch she had on Koko's face. Finally, "The time has come for truth between us, Koko Kanti. I promised Rae'l that I would offer you another opportunity to be honest with me. If you feel like you cannot do that, I will dismiss you from my presence and you will no longer be welcome around the campfire of my fathers."

"Would you do that, ka'eskone? *Could* you do that?"

"I would not want to, warrior mine, but I could if I had to. I cannot continue on this way. I have been angry for a very long time... at you, at me, at the world... and it has affected everything and everyone around me." She dropped her hand from Koko's face and would have moved away had it not been for the fact that Koko caught her hand and held on as tightly as she dared.

"I could not bear that darkness, ka'eskone. The only reason I survived the darkness I brought between us was because I thought you would find happiness from it."

Green eyes glowed in their anger. "How could you think that, Koko Kanti? How could you believe that your absence from my life would do anything but destroy me?? You were my whole world and you walked away without an explanation - you left me without saying goodbye! Do you have any idea what that did to me... what it did to the tribe while I struggled to come to terms with your desertion? Do you know how angry I became or how impossible it was to use my gift because of it??"

Koko sat quietly, stunned by the anger and passion she could feel flowing from Donoma simply through her words. She watched in fascination at the play of emotion over her face. The child she remembered had grown up into a beautiful, passionate woman and Koko couldn't stop the smile that wanted to cross her face. That just made Donoma angrier.

"You think this is funny, warrior? You think this is a game?" She jerked her hand from Koko's... or attempted to... astonished by the gentle strength that suddenly held both hands in one of Koko's and cradled her face in the other. "Koko Kanti," Donoma hissed, her face flushed red, "remove your hands from me this instant."

"Not until you give me a chance to explain, ka'eskone. Not until you promise to listen to me with both ears and an open heart and mind." Koko paused and exhaled softly. "I was not laughing at you, Donoma Chepi - I was noticing what a vibrant, fiery woman has become of the child I once knew so well. It made me smile to remember and to see the changes our time apart has wrought in you. Despite the bad things that happened, some of the differences are good ones, ka'eskone."

Donoma paused to breathe and let Koko's words wash through her. "Does that mean you are ready to explain to me the actions of five cycles ago that brought us to this place?"

"It means that I will try, ka'eskone. But I will ask you to be patient with me. This is very arduous for me to share. Only my Neho'e knows the story, and only those parts I chose to share with him. I would like to share the whole story with you, ka'eskone, but it may take some time."

"You have all the time you need, warrior. You need only tell me the truth."

Koko sat still for a long time, gathering her thoughts. Donoma watched in fascination the myriad of expressions those thoughts took and questioned what caused such pain, such misery to flow over the expressive countenance. She could not recall there ever having been an occasion for them before Koko left and wondered what she could have missed in her youth and inexperience.

"Do you remember," Koko said softly at long last, "when we first met? When you led Takoda to my Nahko'e and me hidden in the hills not far from the summer camp?" Koko met Donoma's eyes and waited for her to nod. "My life changed that day."

"Both of our lives did, Koko. You were the first real friend I ever had... the first one who accepted me without question or expectation. That's why...." She broke off, not wanting to regain the hurt and anger she had managed to set aside somewhat to listen to what Koko had to say.

"I realize that now, ka'eskone, and I am sorry for have unwittingly put you through such distress. That was certainly not my intention." She paused and bit her lip, never losing eye contact with Donoma, needing her friend to see the truth she had to share as well as hear it.

"But I had never met someone like you. You were bright and spunky and outspoken - something even the warriors of the tribes were not with all their swaggering bravado. But more than that - you looked at me as a friend and a warrior and a protector, and I knew right then that I could never let you down. And when I made you my warrior advisor and I became your warrior, I found myself committed to your well-being and happiness."

"As I was to yours, Koko," Donoma broke in. "I would have done anything for you."

"I know, ka'eskone. *That* is why I left."

Donoma's brow furrowed in confusion. "I do not understand, Koko Kanti. You are making no sense."

Koko blew out an impatient, frustrated breath. "Story of my life lately," she mumbled in English. Donoma arched her eyebrows, having understood the words even if she didn't quite get the connotation in terms she recognized. "I am sorry, ka'eskone," Koko apologized again. "I am having difficulty putting my thoughts into some semblance of order to present them to you logically."

Donoma took Koko's hands in hers, chafing the unexpectedly cold hands lightly to restore a bit of warmth to them. "Try thinking a little less, warrior, and speak from your heart."

"Do you remember the day before I left?"

"In very vivid detail, Koko. For a long time I spent every day going over and over what I could possibly have done to have turned you away from me without a word. I never did understand exactly what precipitated your departure."

"Tell me what you remember."


The sun had been warming the earth as spring returned to the land once more. Donoma breathed in deeply, appreciating the fresh air and the smell of wet, growing things. She had seen the speculative looks some of the warriors were beginning to cast in her direction now that she had passed her fifteenth cycle, but she put it out of her mind when Koko returned to the camp after her morning drills. The rest of the warriors were dragging tail behind her, glaring at Koko before collapsing around their various campfires in time for lunch.

"You must have had a good day," Donoma commented quietly as Koko took a seat at her campfire. "You are the only one smiling."

"I did well enough," Koko said calmly, though she couldn't hide the twinkle in her eyes. "Well enough that we can spend the whole afternoon together if you would like."

Donoma almost squealed, but she managed to contain her enthusiasm to a wide grin. "I would most definitely like, my warrior. I seem to see you only briefly in the afternoons and again for a few moments in the evenings any more. I miss you, Koko Kanti."

"I miss you as well, ka'eskone. It feels as though lately everything is conspiring against us to keep us apart. I miss your counsel and your conversation."

"I just miss being with you, Koko, even if all we do is sit quietly."

"As do I, ka'eskone. So let us finish eating so that we can have a nice long walk today." And they rushed through lunch much to the amusement of Takoda and Litonya. When they were out of sight and out of hearing, Takoda and Litonya turned and looked at one another solemnly for a long moment before their faces creased into smiles and they started laughing.

"Do you think they will figure it out?" Litonya asked.

"Koko Kanti knows... I am hoping she will enlighten Donoma Chepi before the suitors start calling. I do not want to have to fend them off until Koko decides the time is right for Donoma to know the truth of what is between them."

"How can she not know? Even those without sight can see it."

"Maybe because she is too close to the situation, Litonya. Or maybe because she is afraid of what it will mean... what it will change between them. It is not something she has discussed with me."

In the meantime, Koko Kanti and Donoma Chepi were out walking among the grasses of the prairie, not sharing conversation except to point out something particularly striking. Donoma caught Koko's hand and held on, swinging them gently between the two.

"Thank you for spending the day with me, warrior," Donoma confessed. "Nayeli."

"Do you really, ka'eskone? Do you love me?"

"With all my heart, Koko. I have always been so glad that you came into my life. You have made such a difference in my life."

"As you did in mine. Maybe one day I can share with you how much."

Donoma smiled shyly. "I would like that, Koko."


"The next day you were just... gone," Donoma concluded as she came back from her memories. "I never understood what I had done or said to drive you away... unless it was my telling you I loved you. But that had never bothered you before."

"That never bothered me at all," Koko confessed quietly. "It was something I always cherished close in my heart... something I still cherish, even if it is no longer true. But that is not all that happened that day - do you remember the rest?"

"I remember Ahanu talked to Takoda about marriage between us and I told Ahanu no. I had no interest in marrying him or anyone else. I was complete in the life I had."

"THAT is why I left, Donoma."

"You left because I was happy so you could make me miserable??" This time when Donoma pulled away, Koko let her go, knowing she needed to get away from her pain and the cause thereof. "Why would you do that, Nutta? Did you hate me so much for loving you?" She turned her back to Koko so the warrior could not see the tears that wanted to spill down her face, but her back was ramrod straight and Koko could no longer bear the anguish she felt rolling from Donoma in waves.

Koko rose from her place slowly, unwilling to make a spectacle of herself by doing any more damage to her body in her haste to reach Donoma. She walked slowly towards the seer, making sure her steps were heard until she was within touching distance of Donoma Chepi.

She grasped Donoma's shoulders, only to feel them stiffen at her touch before slumping in defeat. Koko slid her arms around Donoma until their bodies were touching. "No, Nutta. I left so you could find happiness - so you could have a family and children if that was your desire. I could not be the one to hold you back from such things."

Donoma jerked away from Koko, separating them again. This time when she looked at Koko, the fire had returned to her gaze and Koko nearly flinched from the intensity. "What gave you the right to make such a decision, Koko Kanti? What gave you the right to choose for me?"

"I loved you, ka'eskone. I only wanted your happiness."

"What about now, warrior?" At Koko's confused look Donoma continued. "You said that you loved me, Koko Kanti. What about now? How do you feel about me now?"

"I still love you, Donoma. I never stopped."

"Idiot warrior," she growled. "Did you never stop to think that *you* made me happy - that you were all I needed."

"Are you saying...?" Her world spun and her breathing was shallow and fast; Koko closed her eyes briefly to regain some sense of balance in her body while her mind and heart continued to soar with the implications of Donoma's words.

"I am saying that we need to sit down and have honest speech between us, Koko. We need to decide how we feel and what we want to do about it." Koko's knees gave way at the sudden shift in Donoma's attitude, and Donoma was at her side in an instant. Koko gazed up at her with a dazed expression and Donoma bit off the grin she could feel forming despite herself. "First, however, I think we should see about having a midday meal. I do not wish to keep nursing you back to health."

Koko nodded and rose to unsteady feet. Suddenly the day looked much brighter.

Chapter XVIII

The two went about their chores silently. Donoma had wanted Koko to sit and let her take care of getting their lunch, but she could feel the sudden wave of restless energy flowing from the warrior like a tangible thing. So Donoma sent Koko to check on the horses and asked her to check on the bedding while she was out. Koko nodded her assent and took off at a slow pace, though the air vibrating with electricity all around her made it seem like she was running.

Donoma watched her until she was out of sight and shook her head. Never in her wildest dreams would she have ever imagine being in this place with Koko, and then she stopped cold to wonder why. Why had she not seen this? Why had she not known how Koko felt... how she felt... what was really between them?? Wasn't that what her gift was - being able to see what others could not?

She stood still so long that she never heard Honiahaka's approach and jumped when his hand landed lightly on her shoulder. She thought of screaming for Koko briefly before she looked closely at him, wondering who the warrior in front of her was and why he seemed so familiar - and then he smiled. And Donoma immediately recognized Koko's father for who he was.

He gestured her over to the spot on the ground that had been cleared for sitting and eased her into place before squatting down beside her. "Because seers and shamen are never allowed to see what the future could be for themselves - only for those around them," he said, answering her unspoken question as though he had heard her. "Hello, Donoma Chepi. My name is...."

"... Honiahaka," she breathed softly. "Koko Kanti's Neho'e." She smiled at him bashfully under his frank appraisal. "I recognized your smile."

The smile became a grin and then a hearty laugh. "I wondered why you did not call out for my nahtona. You are a very wise woman, Donoma Chepi."

She shook her head, blonde braids falling into her eyes. "I do not feel very wise at the moment, Honiahaka. I feel something of a fool." He arched his eyebrow in a familiar gesture, taking a seat and wrapping his arms around his bent knees. His attitude was one of patient waiting and Donoma had a feeling he would last longer than she would if they were to play a waiting game. "How could I have been so blind, Honiahaka? How could I not have realized...?"

"You alone are not to blame for this situation, Donoma. Koko bears the brunt of the responsibility for the circumstances you now find yourselves in. Although her intentions were honorable and with your best interests at heart, she could have handled it better. But tell me, if she had stayed, what would you have done?"

Donoma's brow furrowed. "I am not sure I understand," she stated honestly. "Things would have continued on much the same, I suppose."

Honiahaka looked out towards the prairie in the direction he knew his daughter had gone. "That was killing her, Donoma. Not physically, of course, but inside. She left to protect herself as much as she did to give you the opportunity to find happiness with someone who could give you the family she thought you wanted and knew you deserved."

"But why, Honiahaka? Why leave? Why did she not simply talk to me?"

"Donoma, I am going to share something with you I will deny to your dying day if you share it with my nahtona. Koko Kanti is the bravest warrior I have ever seen and yet when it comes to matters of the heart, she is shy and fragile... afraid of being hurt. She always cared for you more than she thought she should. At first she put it down to gratitude and the fact that you were 'differents' together. Then she figured it was because you were best friends and you hero-worshipped her." He sighed and looked into trusting green eyes and recognized his daughter's dilemma. "It got worse when she realized what she felt for you; she became an adult - you were still a child. She never acted on her feelings... never would have, but she loved you even then. There was always something between you...."

Donoma nodded. "There *was* always something between us - even as a small child I understood that. I never analyzed it, never tried to explain it in words, but I knew it was there."

Honiahaka nodded. "Koko could not bear to keep you from finding happiness... but she could not bear to stay and watch you find the happiness that she wanted with you with someone else."

"So she did not talk to me because...."

"Even the bravest warrior has moments of fear, and even the wisest among us sometimes do foolish things for the right reasons. Her heart was in the right place, Donoma Chepi, even if her mind led her astray. I know you are angry; I cannot blame you for that anger. But you should know that she suffered as well during your time apart from one another."

"That does not make me happy, Honiahaka. Despite my anger towards Koko Kanti, I never wished ill will towards her."

Honiahaka smiled. "I know - I think your brethren had that covered quite nicely." He looked around suddenly and rose from his place. He extended a hand down to her and drew Donoma to her feet. "It has been a joy and a pleasure to finally meet you, Donoma Chepi. I can see why my nahtona desires you for a mate." He chuckled when her eyes got impossibly round. "Do not worry, ka'eskone," addressing her familiarly for the first time. "You have my blessing and Rae'l's for this union. Be good to my nahtona, ka'eskone. She may be a stoic warrior on the outside, but she is a caring woman inside. She will need your strength as well as your love and tenderness."

"You seem so sure, Honiahaka."

"She is my nahtona, Donoma. I am. Now I must go. Rae'l and I will be nearby if we are needed, but we will not be watching your every movement." He shook his head trying to rid his face of the blush Donoma could see through his dark skin. "There are some things that should remain private between the two of you and any number of other things that a parent should never know about a child."

Donoma couldn't help it - she laughed. And then jumped again when Koko Kanti clasped her elbow and looked at her in concerned amusement.

"Should I be worried, ka'eskone?" Koko asked, letting her eyes roam over Donoma's features. "You are standing in the middle of the encampment where I left you and you do not appear to have moved, yet you are laughing for no apparent reason. Is there a problem?"

For answer, Donoma turned and cupped Koko's face gently within her hands, tracing her skin with the lightest touch of her thumbs. Koko struggled to keep her eyes open against the cascade of sensations Donoma was creating throughout her body. Quite without her permission, Koko's hands dropped to Donoma's waist and she held on for dear life.

Donoma could no more halt the sharp intake of breath caused by Koko's grip than she could stop breathing completely. She saw Koko's eyes darken in response and hesitated. She had never garnered such a reaction in her life - at least not one she was so conscious of.

Koko released the hold she had on Donoma's waist and clasped the hands cupping her face in her hands instead. "Not yet, Nutta... but soon. We still have much to discuss."

"But only one thing of real importance," Donoma replied without losing eye contact. Koko nodded slowly and stepped back a pace, wanting Donoma to be comfortable. In turn, Donoma stepped forward and caught Koko's hand again. "No more running, Koko. There is no one but us here, and you have nothing to fear from me."

"Are you so sure of that, ka'eskone?" Koko asked in a whisper.

"As sure as I am that the sun rises in the east every morning and sets in the west every evening, warrior." Donoma held Koko's eyes and watched them search her countenance for reassurance. She knew the identical moment that Koko found the proof she needed - she lifted a shaking hand to Donoma's face and tenderly traced the features there.

"Are you sure, ka'eskone?" she asked again, but this time, she was asking a completely different question.

"Do you love me, Nutta? Do you love me with the love one mate has for another?"

Koko shook her head and Donoma's head dropped as her heart shattered. Her humiliation was complete. She released the hand she held and stepped back... or would have had Koko not shifted one hand to the back of her neck and slid the other arm around her waist to hold onto her with gentle strength.

"Ka'eskone, look at me," she pled softly to the top of the blonde head that shook rapidly. "Donoma Chepi," she growled. "Look. At. Me." This was a command and Donoma reluctantly raised her head, biting her lips to keep the tears that sat on her lashes from spilling down her cheeks. Koko gazed intently at her for a long moment, letting the love and affection she felt roll over them both in wave after wave of warmth. Donoma blinked in her confusion and the tears rolled off her lashes and onto her cheeks. Koko leaned down and kissed them away, then moved her lips to Donoma's ear, speaking so softly it could hardly be considered a whisper.

"Beloved," she said in English, causing Donoma to start in surprise. "Nayeli... with all my heart. But, Nutta - it is beyond the love one mate has for another. That cannot begin to compare to what I feel for you."

Donoma pulled back - far enough that she could see the truth of Koko's words in her eyes. "Tell me, Koko," she demanded quietly. "Tell me what it is you feel."

"It is love, ka'eskone, but far beyond something so basic. It is soul completion, beloved."

Donoma slid the hands that were trapped between her body and Koko's up and over Koko's shoulders, locking them behind her neck. "Nayeli, Koko Kanti."

"Nayeli, Donoma Chepi." Then she gave in to the gentle pressure Donoma was putting on the back of her neck while urging Donoma's body closer to her own with the hands she slid around the slim waist. Then she bent her had and brushed her lips over Donoma's once... twice... watching as her eyelashes fluttered and finally closed.

With that, Koko allowed her eyes to close, absorbing the sensations of the kiss through taste and scent and sound. She lightly traced Donoma's lips with her tongue, capturing the gasp with a smile and plundering the mouth that opened beneath hers. Donoma groaned and allowed Koko to have her way for a few moments before she returned the favor, examining every part of Koko's mouth until they were forced to separate for lack of oxygen. Koko started to speak but found herself pulled back to Donoma's mouth and this time, Donoma took the lead. Koko just held on for the ride.

When they pulled apart... slowly, reluctantly... Donoma kept her hands wound tightly round Koko's neck and Koko never lost her grip on Donoma's waist. They simply leaned their foreheads together and breathed one another's air.

"Welcome home, Koko Kanti," Donoma whispered with a smile.

"I will never go away from you again, ka'eskone."


They had finally pulled apart from one another, their grumbling bellies making it impossible to concentrate on anything other than the physical hunger pangs that called to them... loudly. They exchanged embarrassed glances then broke into laughter, diffusing the sexual tension they could both feel roiling just below the surface. Donoma turned to collect the small cache of food supplies from her home, surprised when Koko followed her.

"I need to retrieve my things, ka'eskone, and move back into my own home for the time being. I cannot stay here with you any longer. You deserve better than that."

"Does this mean you intend to stake your claim as a warrior?"

"I do indeed, Donoma Chepi. I want there to be no doubt of my claim or my intentions towards you. I left to give you a chance to choose another; that opportunity is gone. However, if you do not intend to favor my petition, I ask that you tell me now so I can spare us both the humiliation of rejection." Blue eyes twinkled with merriment, but Donoma could see a clear fear of rejection lurking in the back of that gaze. She cupped Koko's face in her hands.

"Can you still have doubts, warrior mine?"

"You were very angry, Nutta."

Donoma nodded. "Yes, I was. There are still some things I am upset about... some things we need to talk about - things I need to know and things we need to share with one another. But none of that will stop what is happening between us. Nothing can stop that except us, Koko Kanti, and I for one do not want to stop. Do you?"

Koko shook her head vehemently, reminded again at the difference five cycles of seasons had made in Donoma's demeanor. The Donoma she remembered, while never shy of speech when conversing with Koko, had never been so sure of herself. Donoma smiled and Koko couldn't help but respond in kind.

"Then you only need to know one thing about your claim, warrior." Her eyebrow arched and her eyes twinkled and her lips spread into a wider grin.

"What would that be, ka'eskone?" Koko feeling her own smile grow in reaction to the teasing.

"Do not make me wait too long. I have waited a lifetime already."

Before Koko could respond, their stomachs growled in hunger once again and she shook her head. "I think we should at least wait until after we eat something. Otherwise, the entire tribe will come back looking for us, thinking we have been run over by a rogue herd."

Donoma couldn't help it - she laughed. Koko had delivered that last bit with a completely straight face and the truth was, she could honestly see that happening. As it was, she was still a little amazed at Takoda's willingness to leave her alone with Koko, given her previous anger - then she wondered if he had seen something she had not.

"All right then... you take your things to your home and I will begin preparing something for us to eat. Then we will see what comes next... aside from reclaiming the furs and blankets. With this breeze, it should not take too long... I hope."

"I will check again after I move my things over. If I stay around here right now...."

Donoma smiled gently, but nodded her understanding. "Just be careful, warrior mine. You are still healing, despite how good you feel at the moment." She looked at Koko who was dressed in a set of white man's clothing she hadn't seen before. "Though how you can be comfortable in those clothes...."

Koko shrugged. "I am used to them. Besides, I am saving the leathers you and Nahko'e created. They will be for claiming you as mine."

"Then I will look forward to the day I see you in them again, warrior. Now go... I have work to do." And so they separated to complete the tasks they had set for themselves, comfortable in the knowledge that despite everything, things between them were going to work out. That was something they both wanted to happen.

Koko picked up her saddlebags carefully and went to her home while Donoma opened the supplies and pulled out the stuff she needed to start soup. She headed back out to the fire that needed tending and heard Koko start back towards the small creek where the furs and blankets were drying. Donoma was thankful she had managed to get water on to heat; with any luck it wouldn't be long before she had something prepared for them to eat. She was anxious to feed them both so they could settle down and just talk for a while. It was something Donoma had missed with aching intensity and then there was the added incentive of wanting to explore this relatively new facet of their relationship.

She smiled when she felt strong arms wrap around her middle and she straightened to lean back into the firm body, mindful that it was still healing.

"I missed you."

"I missed you, too. But at least there were no unexpected visitors this time."

"Excuse me??" Koko sputtered, but stopped when Donoma turned in her arms and put a hand to her lips.

"Your father came to see me, but we can add that to our list of things to talk about."

"Oooookaaaaay," Koko drawled thoughtfully, wondering what had brought her Neho'e out into the mortal plane again so soon. "Um, I think we should move the bedding closer to the camp. Just in case the weather turns... at least we would be able to drag it inside fairly easily then."

Donoma nodded, knowing how quickly the weather was prone to change at this time of year. "Thank you for not doing it on your own, Koko. You could definitely have hurt yourself and despite my confidence in my abilities as a healer, I do not want to see you suffer needlessly for your pride."

Koko ducked her head. "I did think about it, but I knew how disappointed you would be if I was that careless. The foolishness would have simply made you angry and I would rather not do that any more for a while."

"The stew should be fine on its own for a few minutes. Let us go see if we can bring things closer. I have no desire to sleep on wet bedding tonight."

"And then we will talk?"

"And then we will talk," Donoma affirmed. "We have five cycles of seasons to catch up on."

Koko smiled. "I guess we are going to be talking for a while then. I am glad though. I have missed it."

"So have I warrior. So have I."

Chapter XIX

"Are you sure about this, Takoda?" Odahingum asked even as he shifted the clan away from the beaten path they normally followed when they chased the herd across the plains. "You know that Koko and Donoma will not be able to find us if we deviate from our projected path."

"I am aware, Odahingum. I am also aware that if we do not change our course, we will face a hardship that will devastate our clan. I do not believe that Donoma and her mate intend to return to us any time in the near future. Koko Kanti has other responsibilities."

"And what of her commitment to Donoma?"

Takoda smiled. "That is one thing I have no doubt about anymore." Then his smile faded. "I only hope Donoma will set her anger aside long enough to listen to Koko's words. I have to believe she will."

They rode silently for a few minutes as the tribe followed them on an altered path into the hills. Finally Odahingum asked what was on his mind. "What of Donoma, Takoda? Does she feel any responsibility for Koko Kanti or what happened between them?"

"I do not know, my friend; she never shared with me any of her thoughts or feelings in that regard. I can only hope maturity will allow her to see that Koko was trying to look out for her. And Honaw believes that Koko will honor her commitment to Donoma and protect her regardless of Donoma's feelings on the matter. I am inclined to agree with his assessment."

Odahingum shook his head. "So much misunderstanding. In one way, I would like to be witness to their conversation and in another, I am thankful we are not close enough to hear it. They are such strong-minded, stubborn women. I almost feel sorry for the hearing of those around them when they finally decide to discuss the past."

Takoda chuckled. "I do as well... though I will be glad to see the end results."

"You believe it will end well then?"

"I believe they are establishing a new foundation for both of them, Odahingum. I have too."

The chieftain nodded and together they continued on the path that Takoda was setting for them. It marked a new direction for their nation, and with any luck, Koko and Donoma were experiencing a new beginning as well.


Their meal had been quiet. Several times Donoma started to speak and then hesitated and Koko was happy to wait for her to settle her thoughts. She figured Donoma had something she needed to say or wanted to ask and was trying to decide the best way to approach it. Not that there weren't any number of things Koko herself wasn't downright curious about, but she had cultivated a magnitude of patience in her time as both warrior and bounty hunter.

When she was done, Koko rose and slipped Donoma's bowl from her hands. Donoma blinked and came out of her brown study just as Koko stepped out of the fire circle. She thought of calling out to her, then turned her attention to the remainder of the meal that still bubbled slowly over the small fire. She moved it to one side and covered it, then resumed her seat and propped her head on her hands.

Koko came back from the tiny creek with clean dishes and sat down beside Donoma. Unexpectedly, Donoma turned to Koko and pinned her in place with sad, haunted eyes. Koko had time to wonder briefly what had changed in the short time she had been gone to put such an expression on Donoma's face before a whispered query brought her thoughts to a halt.

"Koko, was I hurting you?"

Koko frowned, truly not understanding exactly what she was being asked. "When, ka'eskone? Do you mean earlier when you were treating my injuries?"

Donoma shook her head. "No, warrior. I mean before - before you left. Was I hurting you?" Her hesitation was brief, but it was long enough for Donoma to see the deep-seeded pain in Koko's eyes before it was swiftly hidden.

"No, ka'eskone," Koko denied almost immediately. "My pain was of my own making...." She would have continued had Donoma not covered her mouth.

"Please do not lie to me to spare me pain now, Koko, especially about something this important. Something Honiahaka said made me realize that you were taking all the blame for our separation, even though some of the responsibility lies at my feet." Donoma dropped her hand from Koko's lips and let her eyes fall to the ground between them. "I always assumed it was my fault, but it was so easy to be angry and place the blame solely on you since you were the one...."

"... since I was the one who left. You were not doing anything, Donoma, other than being yourself as you had always been." Koko shrugged and stepped away from Donoma and that action made the blonde head come up in question to see broad shoulders slumped in defeat. Koko sighed. "It was not your fault that I loved you even then."

"But it was my fault for not being able to see that - to see that your feelings for me had changed somehow." Donoma crossed the few steps that brought her back to within touching range of Koko's back and she reached out a shaking hand and placed it between the strong shoulder blades. Koko twitched then relaxed, but she did not turn around. "Koko, I always knew there was something between us... even if I did not know what it was or what to do about it. I expected things to always be the same between us and that was wrong of me."

"You were a child, ka'eskone... why should you not?"

"I am a seer, warrior. I should have known."

Koko turned slightly... enough that Donoma could see the wry expression twist her lips. "I do not think the Great Spirit gives insight to matters of the heart, ka'eskone. If he did, a seer's time would be taken up with constantly giving advice to the lovelorn. I do not think that would sit well with the chiefs and war leaders."

Donoma smirked. "Probably not, but it does not make me feel any less stupid about my inability to see the truth of my own heart, warrior." Koko twitched her eyebrow in question and Donoma sighed and flushed a little. "Koko, you were my best friend, my hero, MY warrior - someone I loved without question or reservation. I could talk to you about anything and even when we argued, you never laughed at my opinions or put them down - you always took the best care of me. I was always happiest when I was with you and missed you with an aching need in my heart when you were gone. You would think that would have told me what you really meant to me."

"When did you know?" Koko asked softly. "When did you understand the truth?"

"Understanding it - about a heartbeat after discovering you were gone. That is what made me so angry, I think. Accepting it - well, that did not happen until today. I had no reason to."

Koko turned around completely and wrapped Donoma in an embrace so tight, it was like being surrounded by a cloud. "I will never give you a reason not to believe again, Donoma Chepi."

"I will never give you cause to leave me behind again, Koko Kanti."

Koko smiled when Donoma's arms crept around her and returned the hug as fervently as she could. "When I go, Nutta... where I go - I will take you with me. Or I will stay where you are if that is what you desire, ka'eskone."

"Koko, I know you have a life outside of what we know with the tribe. I would not ask you to give up whatever comforts and things you have there to return to the life of a nomad if that was not going to make you happy. Is that life important to you? Do you need to do whatever it is that you do in the white man's world?"

"It filled a need in me, Donoma. It gave me purpose and provided for me in the white man's ways. I no longer have to fill that particular need, but I do need to return at least once more to let Stephen... the local Marshall... know about the disposition of the outlaws that followed me here. They were wanted men in the white man's world."

"Why were they following you, Koko?"

"Revenge. I am a bounty hunter, ka'eskone. My job is to track those who break the law and escape justice then bring them in. I am very good at it. Outlaws do not like that."

"Perhaps you should consider another line of work."

"Perhaps I should consider retirement."

"Would you want to do that, Koko Kanti? Could you give that up?"

"In a heartbeat, Nutta, if it meant keeping you by my side. I promised to protect you. I cannot do that if I am chasing outlaws and trying to keep my own skin whole."

It was quiet for a little while after that while Donoma considered what Koko had shared with her so far. Finally....

"Tell what it was like for you when you left, my warrior. Tell me about your life when you went into the white man's world."

"If we are going to start that conversation, we might want to make ourselves comfortable, ka'eskone. It is a tale that will take some time to relate."

In answer, Donoma took Koko's hand and led them a short distance from the fire, out into the tall grass where they could lay cushioned and look up at the bright blue sky. They settled side by side on their backs, holding hands and closing their eyes against the brilliance of the sunshine.

"This is nice," Donoma commented, "though it may put me to sleep."

Koko chuckled. "Me too. I'll tell what I can though before that happens. The Great Spirit knows we could use the rest - you probably more than me actually," frowning in memory at the smudge of darkness underneath Donoma's eyes before she opened her eyes and squinted in Donoma's direction to confirm her memory. Koko had been so focused on the emotions in the eyes that she had failed to note the fatigue so obvious now that she looked for it.

"In fact," Koko said, tugging on Donoma's hand and waiting for the green eyes to open and peer at her from beneath scrunched brows. With her free hand she patted her thigh. "Here... put your head in my lap. It will be more comfortable and maybe you will be able to get a little rest."

Donoma leaned up on one elbow and smiled at Koko. "Should I not be saying that to you? I am not the one walking around with a hole in my stomach."

"And I have slept a majority of the last six days away, ka'eskone. I am tired, but not really sleepy. You, on the other hand, look as though you have not had a full nights' sleep since I arrived." She patted her leg again. "Please, ka'eskone. I will tell you my story until it puts you to sleep," with a smile, then she reached up to trace the dark circles under Donoma's eyes. "I will even retell the parts you sleep through. But you need to rest."

Donoma caught and held Koko's hand. "This bothers you so much?"

"I swore to protect you, ka'eskone... that means taking care of you when you will not. We have time, Donoma; I am not going anywhere without you - I swear."

Donoma twisted until she could lay her head down on Koko's thigh, shifting so she could face Koko instead of looking up. Koko smiled and tangled her fingers in the blonde hair, gently massaging her scalp, then forcing herself not to laugh at the contented sigh that flowed from deep in her chest.


"Yes. This reminds me so much of the nights we would go out and look at the stars."

"I have very fond memories of those nights. I always enjoyed seeing the patterns through your eyes; you saw things so differently than me." Koko paused and laid her head back on the grass, closing her eyes in thought. "I have not done that since I left."

"Neither have I... not like that anyway. Sometimes I would look at the stars, hoping they would answer my questions."

"I never bothered. I knew the answers... or thought I did." Donoma squeezed the hand she still held and tucked it under her chin. "I know we cannot change what happened, ka'eskone," Koko said as her fingers caressed the skin along Donoma's jaw line, "no matter how much we would like to. It will take us both some time to get past our feelings about it, but I do think sharing our stories with one another will help alleviate the guilt and anger between us. So where would you like me to start?"

"Start at the beginning," Donoma mumbled sleepily. "Later," she continued as her breathing deepened in sleep.

"Later, beloved... I promise. Rest now; I'll keep watch."

In response, Donoma tightened her grip for a moment and then relaxed. Koko smiled and extended her senses, using the listening techniques she had taught Donoma all those years before.


"Oh my...." Donoma said as she blinked open her eyes to find darkness surrounding her and the sky full of stars. "I guess I really did need some rest." The surface she was laying on shook with laughter and Donoma turned her head to look at Koko who was gazing at her with adoring eyes. "How long were you going to let me sleep?"

Even in the darkness, Donoma could see Koko's blush, but mostly because the chagrin was clearly written in her eyes. "I fell asleep as well, ka'eskone. I have only been awake a very short time myself."

This time Donoma chuckled and squeezed the hand she still held. "I suppose we both needed the rest, warrior. At least we can chase stars now."

"We certainly can, Nutta. Would you like to stay here or would you prefer to go back to our clearing?"

Donoma lay still, considering her words before answering. She felt the tension in the body beneath her and knew if she was stiff, Koko by definition had to be in agony. "I think we should go back, Koko. At least then we can pull out the furs to lay on and we probably need to eat."

As if on cue, two stomachs growled loudly. They exchanged glances and grinned, then Donoma released Koko's hand and rolled over until she could push herself into a sitting position. She twisted slightly, grimacing at the popping noise, but sighing at the relief she felt. Then she eased to her feet and extended a hand down to Koko.

Koko looked at Donoma with a frown. "You know it is not supposed to be like this, ka'eskone. I am supposed to take care or you... not the other way around."

"No, warrior mine - we take care of each other. And you cannot do by this yourself."

Koko gave Donoma a wry smirk before accepting the hand she held out. "It is hard to argue with that kind of thinking, ka'eskone."

"I know," Donoma agreed as she gently pulled Koko to her feet and steadied her there for a moment before releasing the hand she was gripping. Then Koko caught her hand once more and Donoma smiled up at her. "It is why I used it. I am more than just a pretty face, Koko Kanti. I am pretty smart as well."

"I remember that," Koko concurred, bringing her other hand up to trace the delicate features of Donoma's face. "But you are not simply pretty, ka'eskone. You are beautiful. You would make beautiful children."

"I do not want children, warrior mine - beautiful or otherwise. I only want you."

Koko smiled shyly and looked at the ground. "I am glad about that... both parts of that, actually. I was certain when I realized where I was and how angry you were that I would never have the opportunity to be with you the way I wanted to. It was only because Takoda forced me to speak to you directly that I did so."


Koko nodded. "He said you deserved better from me than my leaving without a word again... and he was right. I will have to thank him for the kick in the behind."

Donoma stared at Koko's contrite expression for a long moment, then glanced at her ass before returning her eyes to Koko's. "Remind me to thank him as well. At least he did not leave a mark."

Koko chuckled and tugged on Donoma's hand to start them back in the direction of the camp. "I think he would have," she confided, "if he had been sure that your wrath would not have been turned in his direction for doing so. I got the impression the tribe is very respectful of your anger."

"They have learned to be. It was very sharp for a long time, but never without cause. I just allowed it to go to the extreme."

"Now you have no reason to." They reached the encampment, remembering the furs that had been left out to dry and hastened to retrieve them. Koko went about setting them up a cozy nest to one side while Donoma relit the fire and set the remaining stew on to warm. Then she cuddled up in Koko's arms where she had gently reclined on the furs and turned her attention to the star-studded expanse.

"I still think it is a bear, warrior. Time has not changed that."

"It is a dipper, ka'eskone. I still do not see a bear in those stars."

"You do not see his head with the little ears and the rounded body and...." stopping the age-old argument when Koko vehemently shook her head. "Maybe you should try seeing it from my eyes."

"I imagine the world would look a lot different for me if I saw with your eyes, ka'eskone. What about those?" pointing to another group of stars. The quiet conversation between them could barely be heard and the stew signaled its readiness while the stars looked on.

Chapter XX

"When I first left the tribe, I thought I would die," Koko said as they settled down after eating. "It was so quiet... so lonely. I never realized quiet could be lonely until it was absolutely silent. I kept waiting... listening for any sound that would show me there was more life out here than me. It seemed that even the animals had abandoned me. I came so close to turning around, but I knew you deserved a chance to find happiness, so I kept going. By the time I reached the fort I was happy to be there if only for the sound of other human voices. Of course, I did not realize how the white man was going to react to me."

"That bad?"

"Not after I explained myself in excruciating, explicit detail."

"What happened?"

"There were some who felt the need to heckle... who believed that my being a woman precluded me from being a warrior. And there were those who felt my not being of the white world meant I was less than they were... that I was an animal to be taken - I simply restructured their thinking."

"What happened?" Donoma repeated.

"I defeated them; I fought them and I won. Then I got my first bounty and things got a lot easier."

"Wait... go back. You *fought* them?"

"I did - hand to hand. I had no guns and no knowledge of how to use them, so I earned their respect by beating them up."

Donoma shook her head. "Is it that way everywhere? You had to do the same when you came to us as I recall."

Koko smirked. "I think it is simply the way of man, ka'eskone. The few women I encountered took me in and gave me a place to stay and food to eat until I could manage on my own. In return I looked out for them... did not let those same men push them around and beat them up anymore." Blue eyes grew thoughtful. "I realized that the ones who have the least seem to be the most generous while those who have the most to give are the ones who want more and will do anything to keep taking. That is one reason I became a bounty hunter."

"One reason?"

"I needed money, ka'eskone, and since I did not know how to play cards, it was about the only way I could earn it as a woman that did not require me to lie on my back underneath some man." Donoma looked at Koko with horror and revulsion shining out of her eyes. Koko nodded her head. "Exactly. Besides, I am good at tracking - good at killing, honestly. And the animals I went after did not deserve better than dying."

"Do you enjoy it, Koko?"

Koko turned to look directly into Donoma's green eyes, finding not judgment or disgust, but a desire to understand. "Sometimes," she confessed honestly. "Sometimes I am glad to kill them if only because I know they will not be able to destroy any more lives." She drew a deep breath. "The men that I go after are wicked men, ka'eskone, who have done evil, bad things. My job is to stop them in any way I can and generally that entails killing them."

"Would you give it up?"

"I could, ka'eskone... in a heartbeat. It is not something I need to do; it is something I do because it needs to be done. And I am good at it. But I will stop if that will make you happy."

"Would that make you happy?"

"I know that at some point I will have to stop or it will kill me - that is just the way of the world. Someone will come along one day who is stronger or smarter or faster who will take me down like an outlaw and end my life if I do not stop by my own choice. Even now, there is still a possibility that someone will come looking for me before I can go looking for them."

"Like what brought you back to us again?"

"Exactly like that."

Donoma took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I do not like that, warrior. I do not think I could live knowing you were in constant danger. But I am not sure it is fair to ask you to give it up either. You serve the greater good, Nutta, and that has to mean something to you or you would not have continued to pursue such a course once you had enough money to leave the white man's world."

"Donoma... ka'eskone... being a bounty hunter gave me purpose. It gave me a reason to look forward to another day, because there are always more outlaws that need hunting."

"And now?"

"Now?" Koko brushed her fingertips across Donoma's cheek, gratified when the green eyes closed and Donoma leaned into the touch. "Now I have the possibility of the future I have always wanted. That is all the reason I need." She stopped talking when Donoma snuggled deeper into her embrace.

Quiet settled over them and it was only a short while before the rhythmic breathing of sleep was the only accompaniment the crackling fire had. The stars twinkled merrily, two moreso than the rest, as the night continued on to fade towards dawn.


Honiahaka turned to Rachel and smiled at the delighted expression that sparkled out of her blue eyes. "You are happy with the turn of events, Nutta?"

"Oh yes, Honiahaka. I have waited a long time for my nahtonas to realize the bond they share with one another." Honiahaka laughed and took Rachel into his arms, hugging her with all the strength in his ethereal body.

"Oh Rae'l... they have yet to recognize their bonding. They have only just begun to understand and explore what is possible between them. But they will - what they have will not be denied." He brushed a kiss over the top of her dark head. "Trust me, Rae'l."

"I always did, Nutta, even before I knew you as more than just my captor. You never lied to me and you endured a lot to protect us."

"Then believe me when I tell you that Koko Kanti inherited that same strength and stubbornness. Now that Donoma's heart is open to her, Donoma Chepi does not stand a chance against Koko Kanti's persuasiveness. Besides, she wants to be convinced."

Rachel chuckled. "I think you are right about that, Honiahaka. I just hope it is sooner than later. I do not want any more gray hair than I died with."

"Come then... we will leave them to figure things out. It is time for us to rest."

And they faded from view as the sun edged its way over the horizon.


"Good morning, ka'eskone," Koko greeted as Donoma's lashes tickled the side of her neck. Donoma stretched carefully, not willing to leave the nest that had been created for her in Koko's arms, but equally reluctant to do any further damage to the still healing body beneath her. She turned and let her lips brush Koko's neck.

"Good morning, warrior," she croaked, clearing her throat and blinking her eyes again. She gratefully accepted the waterskin and gulped down several swallows. "How did you sleep?"

Koko shifted so Donoma could see the wry look in her eyes. "You were in my arms, ka'eskone, despite all good intentions to the contrary. How could my sleep be anything but good?"

Donoma shifted, easing into a sitting position. "You can have good intentions tomorrow, Koko. I needed to be in your arms last night as much as you needed to have me there."

"Did you really, Donoma Chepi?"

Green eyes met blue and Donoma winced to see the uncertainly lurking in them. She leaned over Koko's body and cupped her face in one hand. "Yes, Koko... I did. I needed the reassurance of knowing you would be there when I awoke this morning just as you needed to know I would be there all night long. We are rebuilding trust, warrior. We both have fears we can only face together."

Koko took the hand that cradled her face and brought it to her lips. "When did you get to be so smart again?"

"I have always been smart, Koko Kanti. It is the reason I am the warrior advisor to the best warrior the tribe has ever known."

"Oh no, ka'eskone," Koko disagreed. "That had nothing to do with your mind and everything to do with your heart. I knew someone who saw and felt as you do could be relied on to be the best possible advisor in the world. It made all the difference."

"But you did not know anything about me when you made me you advisor," Donoma protested.

"Oh, but I did, ka'eskone. You cannot see it, but your soul shines out of your eyes like a beacon." Donoma flushed bright red at Koko's words and dropped her head. Koko raised it with her fingers under Donoma's chin until their eyes were at a level. "Oh no, ka'eskone. It is nothing to be ashamed of - your soul is beautiful."

"You can really see that?"

"I always could, Donoma. It was the first part of you I fell in love with."

Donoma sat perfectly still, concentrating on breathing. Koko sat and watched in fascination as the emotion play across her face. She'd always thought that Donoma knew so much about what was between them, and was slowly coming to the realization that Donoma was feeling her way through things that Koko was still coming to terms with herself. It was one thing to know something intellectually and something else again to have to acknowledge it emotionally.

"Does that surprise you, ka'eskone?" Koko ask when the silence went on too long for her comfort. Donoma's eyes tracked back to her from wherever they had been and she blinked rapidly to bring her eyes back into focus. Koko gave her a gentle smile and Donoma responded with a shaky smile of her own. "Does it surprise you to know that I love you, Donoma Chepi?"

"No, my warrior," Donoma replied possessively. "Only that you have known for so long."

"Perhaps on some level, ka'eskone, but never overtly... at least not until I decided to leave. I spent that entire night thinking, you know - recognizing a few truths about myself... and us."

"Perhaps I should take the time to do the same." Donoma looked down at her hands and watched them fidget as if by their own volition. "I should have done it years ago... when you left. I imagine I would have followed you if I had." She paused. "Then again, I purposely avoided thinking about you or why you had left - probably because I knew it would come down to being my fault."

"Not your fault, Donoma - my decision."

"And my fault for not seeing... for failing to look." She looked into Koko's eyes and took the larger hands in hers. "Koko, if I had known... if I had seen.... Takoda could not have stopped me; no one could have. I would have followed you until we had sorted all this out."

"We can only go forward from here, ka'eskone." The growling of two hungry bellies interrupted her and Koko and Donoma exchanged smirks that became chuckles after a moment. "First, however," Koko continued when the noise died down a bit, "I think we need to find something to break our fast and decide what we want to do now."

"I will catch us some fish," Donoma said confidently. "You do not need to be bending over and straining that tummy wound," she cautioned when Koko frowned. "Besides, you taught me, remember? I can do it, warrior."

"I know," Koko agreed. "It is just different than what I remember."

"It is different, Nutta. We are different people getting to know one another again. But I have to be honest... I am looking forward to it."

"So am I, ka'eskone. Go catch your fish - I will stoke the fire. There will be time later to talk."


"I have missed your cooking, Donoma. I had put the flavors you created out of my mind, but they bring back so many memories." Koko leaned forward to whisper conspiratorially, even though she and Donoma were the only ones around. "I always loved your cooking... even more than my Nahko'es."

Donoma smiled and blushed. "Did you really?"

"Yes. Nahko'e cooked for me because it was her place to do so, both as my Nahko'e and as the woman in a warrior's household. I know that she loved me, but she also bore a responsibility to me as her nahtona and her provider. You cooked for me because you wanted to and it always tasted a little bit better because of that."

"Not all of it, warrior. I remember some distinct disasters while I was learning."

"I would not call them disasters," Koko replied tactfully.

"I would," Donoma said with laughter. "There was nothing successful about the flat bread on fire or the stew that...."

Koko held up her hands in surrender, grimacing in memory. "All right... all right. Maybe there were a few disasters while you were developing your own style, but even then I could still taste love in the effort you put into caring for me that way."

"Could you really?"

"Of course.... because you never did it for anyone else - only me."

"Of course I did - you were my warrior."

"I am still your warrior, ka'eskone. That never changed - even when I built a home out in the white man's world."

"You built a home there?"

Koko nodded wearily. "I had to. Living in the town was driving me crazy. The noise there - while I had searched for relief from the quiet on my sojourn there as a reassurance that I was not alone in the world, I realized that I could not live with so much sound from so many sources. As soon as I could afford to do so, I moved away from the fort and built a small cabin out away from everything."

"The silence didn't bother you there?"

"I needed it - it wasn't the total quiet that haunted me when I left the tribe. This gave me a sense of peace... a sense of home that I had not had since I left here."

"Do you think I could see it?"

"Would you like to?"

"I think so, yes. I would like to know about your life while you were gone from this place. You know what mine was like - it is very consistent."

Koko chuckled. "That it is. Would you like to find your family and let them know?"

"Not until we are joined, warrior. Takoda trusts you to keep me safe."

"Then we can go whenever you would like to leave. It will take us a little while to reach the fort if you would like to go into town. My cabin is a little closer."

"I think I would like to see the cabin first. It might take a while before I feel comfortable going into the town. I am not sure how the white world would take to me."

"You will be fine, ka'eskone. You would fit into the white world easier than I did," combing her hands through blonde hair. "But I would never let you face something like that on your own, beloved," switching to English. "Anywhere we go, we go together. If you are not comfortable going into town, my business there will wait until you are."

"And if I never am?"

"Then we will not go, Donoma... simple as that. I told you - you make the choice. If you want to live here, we can always come home to your family and the tribe. I only want to be where you are."

"No, Koko... *we* make the choice. This is about us... our life together."

"Then I say that we start out at first light tomorrow. We do not have a schedule to keep, and it will give me a little more time to recover. I have this very strict caregiver who would be very happy if I took better care of myself so she did not have to continue to repair the damage I do to my body."

"Your caregiver would prefer that you not do damage to yourself to begin with, but I will accept that as a viable option in this situation."

"So leaving tomorrow...?"

"... is fine with me, warrior, as long as you feel able to do so. Now I am going to go check on the horses. You should rest." And Donoma rose from her spot and headed out into the prairie before Koko could protest. Koko watched her go and let a smile cross her face. Then she rose and went into her own tent. The evening suddenly had interesting possibilities.

Chapter XXI

Donoma walked out onto the prairie in the direction of the horses, laughing out loud when Dapples ran to her and butted her gently in the chest to encourage her to scratch the mare behind the ears. Obediently, Donoma lifted her hands and rubbed Dapples' ears and neck. The mare pushed more firmly against her chest, forcing Donoma to grab onto the pony to keep from falling ass over teakettle. "Dapples!"

The horse whinnied in perceived laughter and Donoma shook her head. Then a snort was heard from the far side of the plain and Donoma looked up to find the big black was shaking his head at her. She planted her fists on her hips and glared at him.

"Whose side are you on?"

The black trotted majestically across the prairie and Donoma watched entranced, inevitably reminded of Koko in the smoothness and grace of the movement. He butted her in the chest with much less force than Dapples used and she reached up and hugged his neck.

"Oh, Black - what am I doing?" Sensing her distress, Dapples moved up and nuzzled her back. "Should I not still be angry? After holding on to it for so long, is it right that I give it up so easily?" She closed her eyes and leaned against Black's neck.

"Are you that afraid to be happy, Donoma Chepi? Do you need that anger to be part of your life?" Donoma scrunched up her eyes, then sighed when a hand landed between her shoulder blades. Then she turned to see Rae'l standing behind her, crossing her arms over her chest. "Donoma...." chiding.

She sighed again. "Rae'l...."

"Donoma...." She paused. "We can do this all afternoon, but I do not think we will make much progress that way. Tell me why you are so scared of happiness."

"I am not scared of happiness, Rae'l... at least I do not think I am. I have not been truly happy in so long that I am not quite certain how to react. But it seems wrong to release my anger so easily. Rae'l... I was so angry at Koko - furious even - for such a long time. To simply let it go because she finally took me into her heart and spoke to me honestly... is that the right thing to do?"

"Do you believe that you will never have cause to feel anger towards my nahtona again if you give this anger up, Donoma? Do you think things will change completely?" Rachel shook her head and sighed. "Donoma, even before you found the anger that you have held to your bosom for the last five cycles, you had plenty of reason to become exasperated with her, and she with you. It is a normal human condition - to feel anger - but it is also a passing one. What does holding on to it garner you?"

Donoma turned her eyes to the prairie, so that all Rachel could see was her profile. "Safety, perhaps," she whispered after a long moment. "It is what I know now."

Rachel stepped up behind her and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Donoma - trust Koko to give you that safety now. She has gone five long, lonely cycles without the safety of knowing you were in her corner watching her back. She knows what it is to do without the reassurance of a safety net. Trust that she loves you enough to never let you understand that." Rachel came around to stand in front of her and cupped Donoma's face in her hands. "Donoma... nahtona e nutta... my daughter loves you - more than knowledge or wealth or warrior skills; she loves you more than life itself. All you have to do is let go of your anger and accept that."

"That simple?"

Rachel smiled into Donoma's trusting green eyes and brushed a kissed across her forehead. "That simple." She chuckled. "We always make it harder than it needs to be - it seems to be human nature."

"Sometimes I wonder at the Great Spirit's wisdom in making us quite so human." This time Rachel laughed outright and Donoma couldn't keep the smile from crossing her face.

"Be happy, Donoma Chepi. You and Koko Kanti both deserve so much."

"Thank you, Rae'l. I will think about what you have said."

"And you will then do as I say," Rachel commanded sternly but with a twinkle in her blue eyes. "Seriously, Donoma - all Honiahaka and I want for the two of you is for you to find the happiness you have always known with one another and let the love flourish from there. And it will... if you let it."

"I will... urk," unexpectedly gasping for breath as the sound of the shot and the burning pain that accompanied it reached her senses. She looked down and watched with a bemused expression for a moment as blood blossomed on her dress, then crumpled to the ground.

"Take the horses, sergeant," the blonde lieutenant commanded. "I have waited a long time to own this stallion." The sergeant nodded and slid from his own mount, only to find himself under the hooves of an angry war horse. He screamed and the lieutenant placed his hand on the butt of his pistol. He had no time to draw it, however, before he wound up crushed under the hooves of his own horse as he shied away from the teeth of the Appaloosa.

The five men - four privates and a corporal - left in the scouting party looked at one another in confused alarm, backing away slowly as the big stallion approached them snorting and huffing while the dappled horse remained guarding the woman they'd shot.

"I don't care what the lieutenant said - them two horses ain't worth dyin' for."

"I thought there was s'posed to be a whole herd of 'em."

"Well, I ain't seen nothin' that looks like no herd and we ain't found no Injun tribes neither. I think somebody done lied 'bout something and I ain't getting into trouble fer this."

"What about the woman?" the youngest of them asked. He hadn't understood the need to shoot her to begin with. It wasn't like the army had need of these two horses. And given the lieutenant's words, this was personal for him.

The corporal shook his head. "Nothing we can do for her... or for them," motioning to the now still, mangled bodies of the two dead soldiers. "Leave her be - them we gotta take back to the Cap. He can dispose of 'em."

"We won't get into trouble?"

"Not like we would for goin' back without 'em or desertin'. Drag 'em away from the woman first, then load 'em up on the backs of their mounts. We got a long ride aheada us and they're gonna start stinkin' before we get back iff'n we don't move."

The men did as the corporal commanded and the horses allowed it as though sensing the immediate danger to them was passed. In very short order, they were loaded up and moving back the way they came. As soon as they were gone, Black galloped towards the dell.


Despite all her good intentions, Koko had fallen asleep almost the moment her head had hit the furs. Now she was having the oddest dream - all colors and shapes, but no sound... until suddenly there was a loud pop. Still in the throes of her dream reality, she didn't even try to make sense of the sound or figure out what it might mean in the real world.

It was only when she felt the very real heat of warm breath on her neck that she blinked opened her eyes, then started back when she met the liquid brown eyes of her horse instead of the warm green she was expecting.

"Black?" raising a hand to make sure her vision was accurate and she was awake. Though not what she had been dreaming, this was such an unheard of event in her reality that Koko wanted to be sure her dreaming had not merely shifted gears. But the prickly hair of Black's muzzle convinced her she was awake, and Koko rolled up slowly until she was sitting. "What are you doing in here, boy?" her mind still trying to shake the cobwebs from her thought processes.

Black nipped at her and backed out of the tent, then stepped forward and nipped again before leaving completely. A little angry and more than a little annoyed, Koko slowly climbed to her feet and followed him outside, glaring at him when she realized how little time had passed since she'd laid down to rest.

"What is it, boy? Why are you here instead of out on the Plain with Donoma? Does she not have a tre...?" A cold chill skittered across Koko's skin and down her backbone as she understood exactly what Black was trying to tell her.

Before she could give the command, the stallion knelt and took her weight easily, standing as soon as she had a secure seat and racing back across the prairie. Koko only hoped they were not too late.


Black went right to where Dapples stood guarding Donoma's fallen body. Koko leaped for the ground before the stallion could stop, wincing at the jolt of pain the impact sent through her body, but putting it aside as she knelt at Donoma's side. A quick check assured Koko of Donoma's continued life, but she could only imagine the damage that had been done from the amount of blood that was spilled. She lifted her head and screamed, releasing the anger and frustration she felt, then she lifted Donoma into her arms.

Black knelt at her whistle and stood when she kneed him and Dapples followed them back to the encampment. Koko dismounted as quickly as she could when they reached Donoma's dwelling, then the horses moved to the outer perimeter to watch.

Her guts were quaking but her hands were steady as she cut the blood-soaked material away from Donoma's body, stripping her and throwing the ruined cloth to one side to deal with later. The bullet appeared to have gone straight through and even now, the blood loss was down to a trickle. Koko looked around, then remembered she had moved her saddlebags back to her home and with a groan, rose and went to retrieve them.

She dumped them carelessly beside her and pawed through things until she found what she wanted. Not her first choice, but at least the whiskey would clean the wound and help stop the bleeding completely. That plus the alum powder she had left meant Donoma had a chance of survival... if she hadn't already bled out too much.

Carefully Koko emptied the bottle, doing her best to coat both sides of the injury. Then she took the powder and sprinkled it inside the hole, continuing until her supply was gone. That done, she found the waterskin and cleaned the excess blood from Donoma's body, sparing the barest thought for how beautiful her ka'eskone had grown up. When she was finished, Koko moved Donoma to the furs and covered her, then made to clean up the mess and leave. Her body had other ideas and she crumpled, landing beside Donoma on the furs.

She grunted, her injured side taking the brunt of the fall as she tried to fall away from Donoma. Without thinking about it, Koko rolled over and slid closer to Donoma, then cradled the smaller body in her strong embrace. Despite her pain, or maybe because of it, Koko fell into the sweet oblivion of sleep.


It was dark when Koko woke up with a start, wondering what had brought her back to consciousness. Then Donoma moaned and she realized that Donoma was starting to wake up. Koko eased up onto an elbow and started a light massage over Donoma's torso to help her relax a little. After several long moments, Donoma's eyes blinked open, and though Koko couldn't see them, she felt the change in her breathing and awareness.

"Hello, ka'eskone. How do you feel?"

"Like Dapples danced on my stomach." A gasp as she breathed too deeply. "What happened?"

"You were shot," Koko informed her grimly.

"What? By who... and why?"

"I do not know, Donoma. I was hoping you might have seen something. Black came and got me and you were alone by the time I reached you."

"Remind me to thank Black later." Donoma paused and breathed for a few minutes and Koko was content to let her, reassured by the steady movement of her chest. Finally, "Warrior, I hate to ask this, but we have to eat and I am not certain I can sit up long enough to prepare anything. Do you think you could...?"

Koko smiled in the darkness, then chuckled to show Donoma the mirth she could not see otherwise. "I am not an accomplished cook like yourself, ka'eskone, but I did manage to learn a few things while I was away. I could probably prepare a broth we could consume."

Donoma nodded. "That would be perfect. I do not think I actually have the strength to chew at the moment. Do you think we could get some light in here as well?"

"I will start a fire. I do not want you to catch a chill or a fever. In fact, if you like, I will cook in here as well. I do not think I am up to maintaining two at the moment and I would rather be where I can keep an eye on you. I certainly never expected to be in a position to need to do so like this."

"Neither did I, warrior, but I am glad you are here to do so." She yawned then winced. "As for the other, please. I do not care for the smell of the medicine you used."

"Well, whiskey is not my first choice," Koko admitted, "but it did what I needed it to do. At least I did not get it on the furs - we would have had to have thrown them out. You rest," feeling Donoma's breathing start to slow and deepen. "I will wake you to eat when it is ready."

All she got in response was a mumbled agreement, but it was enough.


Koko shook Donoma gently once the soup was warm. It took a few moments for Donoma to come out of her deep sleep, and she blinked rapidly to clear the sleep from her eyes. Donoma made the mistake of trying to adjust on her own and hissed at the pain that shot through her body with the movement. Koko placed a gentle hand on her shoulder.

"I realize we are neither one at our best, Donoma, but we have to help each other. The kind of injury you have will be slow to heal and you will find it interferes with every move you want to make."

"Guess this means we will not be going anywhere tomorrow."

"Good guess," Koko smiled. "Though at least we do not have a schedule to keep. We will go when we go and get there when we get there. In the meantime, you need to eat, and so do I. Then we can rest again and see how things look in the morning."

Donoma nodded and waited for Koko to ease down into a sitting position. Then she scooted slowly up the warrior's body, taking care not to bump along the wounded side. Finally they were set so that they could eat together and bit by bit they drained their bowls.

Koko had thought ahead and removed the larger pot from the fire and placed it close enough to reach for seconds that she finished and Donoma made an effort at. When they were done, she slipped out from beneath Donoma and placed the pot to one side of the fire for reheating later.

"I am going to check on the horses, then I will get my furs and bring them in here. I would be more comfortable not leaving you alone tonight."

"I would be more comfortable not being alone tonight," Donoma admitted softly.

"The horses have not gone far, so I will be right back."

Donoma nodded her head in agreement and closed her eyes. She had never felt pain like this before and was anxious to slip into a meditative state of sleep that would allow her to work through it until she could tuck it away out of her conscious mind.

Koko went to the far side of the dell's perimeter and hugged the necks of both horses. "Thank you Dapples - for watching over Donoma and protecting her. And thank you, Black - for coming to get me so quickly. You probably saved her life with your actions."

She held on for a long time, recognizing in that moment that she could have very easily lost Donoma. The realization made her shake, and the horses stepped closed to her, understanding her distress. After a bit, Koko came back to herself and hugged both horses again before straightening and stepping away.

"Thank you both," she said sincerely, then turned and headed back to the camp. She and Donoma both had some recovery to do, and the sooner they started, the sooner they would be able to head away from this place and towards the relative safety of Koko's home.

Sooner or later, the warrior in her would need to find who did this to Donoma, but for now, it was enough just to be together and know they were all right.

Donoma's breathing was deep and even when Koko stepped through the doorway of her home. She debated for the space of about half a second before carefully placing her furs right beside Donoma's. The warrior part of her knew it was less than honorable, but the human part of her couldn't deny herself the comfort of being close enough to reach out and touch the woman she loved.

Koko eased into a sitting position, suddenly feeling all the stupid and rash things she had done during the day, but not finding it in her to regret one of them. She pulled another fur up over Donoma's body and tucked her in, then sighed and lay back on her own. She lay completely still for a long moment, relishing the feeling of relaxation that washed over her making her feel lethargic and sleepy. Koko let her eyes close and she released a deep breath.

Today had been a day she could truly have lived without the good parts if it meant skipping the bad as well. It occurred to her as she pulled a fur up to cover herself that she had been intending to woo Donoma tonight - to approach her seriously as a suitor. Ah, she thought with a wry smile on her face, the best laid plans....

She rolled carefully onto her side, facing Donoma's profile in the fire lit space and just staring at her for a bit. Koko reached over a hand and took Donoma's limp one in hers, grinning when Donoma returned the squeeze with just the barest amount of pressure.

Then again, she thought as her eyes closed again as the warmth of the blanket seeped through her body and caused sleep to be an acceptable alternative to staying awake. We are together at the end of the day. Can't ask for more than that.

Then she let the sleep take over and surrendered herself to its healing properties. With a little luck, tomorrow would be a better day.

Chapter XXII

Donoma blinked her eyes open slowly, wincing at the amount of pain present in her body. She closed her eyes again and took a slow breath, struggling to relax and willing the pain to the back of her mind. It took a long time, but she was finally able to put it out of the realm of conscious thought and although it was still there, it became at least tolerable.

She lay still, finding it was easier to maintain the block if her eyes stayed closed and there was no movement to disturb her thoughts. Donoma felt fingers tighten their grip on her hand and she couldn't stop the smile as they loosened to gently trace a pattern on the skin immediately surrounding them. That, even more than her meditation, was taking her thoughts off of her injury.

Without warning, Koko buried her face in Donoma's neck, breathing in her scent before kissing the self-same spot. Donoma forced her eyes open again and turned to find blue eyes in very close proximity to her own. She pulled her head back just enough to keep her eyes from crossing and smiled, watching in delight as Koko's face reflected the expression.

"Good morning, warrior mine."

The smile went from happy to outright dazzling with her greeting and Koko leaned down to kiss her lips tenderly. "Yes it is, ka'eskone. It is a very good morning. How do you feel?"

"Worse than I did yesterday," Donoma replied truthfully. She eased a hand up to cup Koko's face, allowing her thumb to trace the sharp planes and hollows it could reach. Koko smiled and Donoma let her fingers track the curves of her lips. "But somehow it does not seem to bother me as much lying here in your arms. Maybe I could just stay here until I am healed."

"Maybe you could just stay here."

Donoma smiled. "As tempting as that sounds, I need to go out."

Koko returned the smile. "So do I," she confided. "Let me get up and then I will help you up. And then we can see about getting something to eat."

Donoma chuckled, then stopped with a gasp. "Ouch..." she wheezed. "We are quite a pair."

"Yes - the question is... a pair of what?"

Koko eased to her knees, then helped Donoma into a sitting position. Once she was sure they were both stable, she rose to her feet, wincing at the amount of residual soreness she still felt throughout her body. Taking a deep breath, she offered a hand to Donoma, knowing that the location of her injury would preclude using more than one hand to aid her in getting up.

It was a slow, painful process for both of them, and they were both wincing and gasping by the time Donoma was standing upright. Koko wrapped a fur around Donoma's nudity to protect her modesty - respecting that she was an unattached female in the presence of a warrior. Once she was satisfied she had done the best she could, they leaned into one another for support and slowly made their way out into the brightly lit day, shutting their eyes in reflex for a long moment before blinking rapidly to adjust to the change from the duskiness of indoors.

Then they moved to relieve themselves - another challenge in and of itself - before Koko helped Donoma over to where the horses still stood sentinel over the encampment. Then she moved off to restart the fire and collect water for their use while Donoma talked to the horses.

Koko watched for a moment, charmed by the way the animals responded to her ka'eskone. Then she turned and headed out to accomplish the chores she had set for herself. Now more than ever, she wanted the safety the four sturdy walls could provide her with.

Donoma one-arm hugged first Dapples, then Black, murmuring her thanks and gratitude into alert, twitching ears. She scratched them both gently and kissed the ends of their noses, then slowly made her way back towards the fire pit area that lay between her home and Koko's. She felt weak and exhausted and fell into a light doze, only to be awakened when Koko dropped the chips she had collected and knelt beside her.

"Are you all right, ka'eskone?" she asked lovingly. "Aside from the obvious, I mean."

"I am just tired, warrior... drained. I will be fine with a bit more rest." She looked into the haggard blue eyes that stared at her. "As will you. This is not helping your recovery."

"As you said, Donoma... I will be fine. I will get the fire started, then I will start the soup... what?" she asked when Donoma shook her head.

"If you will start the fire, I will prepare the soup. You need the rest as much as I do, Koko Kanti, and that is all I can do at the moment."

Koko nodded, easily reading the determination in the green eyes facing her. "Very well, ka'eskone. I collected water already. I thought you might want to clean up a little. I am not sure I got all the blood off when I did it."

Donoma took a deep breath. "I am not sure I can manage," she said honestly. "But I will try."

Koko rested a hand on Donoma's arm. "I will help you, ka'eskone. I did not want to make you uncomfortable by suggesting it."

"Koko, I think we can agree we are dealing with far less than normal circumstances here. I think the elders would understand if we have to bend convention and tradition a bit to accommodate the special needs we are both functioning with at the moment."

"In other words...."

"In other words, I do not think that seeing one another naked or helping each other bathe is an untoward situation given the circumstances we find ourselves in. You have made your intentions clear and when the time comes, my answer will most definitely be in your favor." Donoma watched the relief flow across Koko's body, though nothing changed in her expression except for a twinkling that started in the back of her blue eyes. She tilted her head slightly. "You doubted so much?"

"Not your love, Donoma Chepi...." She paused and took a deep breath. "Only your forgiveness. I understand your anger - I have felt it myself. I am not certain I could have been so merciful to me had the circumstances been reversed."

"Could you have been that merciful to me?"

"Of course," Koko replied without hesitation. "Donoma...."

"Warrior, if the situation was reversed, you would be forgiving me, not yourself. Though I do not agree with what you did, I understand why. And even though I still get angry when I let myself brood about... things... Rae'l was right. I do not need to hang on to the anger any longer. I have held it close to my heart for five full cycles to protect myself from everything - especially people and emotions that could hurt me. There was no room for anything else as long as I held onto my anger."

Donoma closed her eyes and breathed, trying to dredge up the strength to finish. Koko wrapped a tentative arm around her but didn't speak, sensing Donoma wasn't done speaking. She had cultivated her patience for years under her father's tutelage and the intervening years had only served to hone it to a fine art. So Koko sat patiently waiting and lending her own waning strength to the woman in her arms. Finally her patience was rewarded when Donoma opened her eyes and smiled.

"Thank you, warrior mine. I am sorry...."

"Do not apologize, ka'eskone. I have nowhere else I would rather be, and we are not running a race."

"Rae'l was right about something else as well," waiting until Koko cocked an eyebrow in a familiar questioning gesture. Donoma grinned and traced the brow with her thumb before answering. "She said I no longer needed to protect myself... that you would do it for me if I would allow it."

"That is very true, ka'eskone. Even if you did not return the love I feel for you, I would still never allow anything to hurt you that it was in my power to stop. I gave you my word to protect you, Donoma Chepi, and I will do so as long as you allow it."

"In that case," Donoma said with a tired grin, "build the fire, warrior, so I can prepare us something to eat. Then we can get some rest. Cleaning up will wait until we have both had some rest."

Koko nodded wearily. "I concur, ka'eskone. I feel like I have been fighting all day." Then she shifted her weight to move closer to the fire pit and began laying the chips. Donoma closed her eyes, thankful for the respite. After several minutes, the noises stopped and the crackle of flames could be heard. Donoma opened her eyes when she felt Koko lean against her and trace her face with a delicate hand.

Their eyes met and Donoma turned her head to kiss the calloused fingers. "Let me put the soup on and then we can rest while it heats." She noticed that Koko had already hung the large pot full of water over the heat and had a smaller one sitting beside it and looked back at smiling blue eyes. "Thank you, Koko."

"I know you said cleaning up could wait, but I thought you might appreciate the chance to get rid of the itch."

Donoma shifted uncomfortably, dumping a selection of the supplies Koko had set beside her at some point into the heating water. "How did you know?"

Koko's smile broadened. "I have been where you are, ka'eskone, on more than one occasion. There is nothing pleasant about it. But sometimes the itch from the dirt and old blood and healing can be more irritating than the original injury itself." She leaned forward and swiped the smaller pot from its place beside the fire. "Here," she offered. "You can do the front, and then I will clean your back."

Donoma accepted the cloth from Koko's hands, then dunked it into the warm water... and realized she wasn't able to squeeze it out. She looked over her shoulder at Koko, and Koko stared back dumbly for a moment before realizing the problem with the situation. She shrugged sheepishly. "Sorry, ka'eskone. I forgot about that." She took the cloth and squeezed out the excess water then passed it back to Donoma.

When Donoma was done with the front, which Koko had been able to mostly clean before, she dropped the cloth back into the water and let the fur slip down to her waist. Koko winced when she looked at the damage, then gently wiped away the grime that still coated Donoma's back. Even as gentle as she was, she could feel Donoma flinch. Koko bit her lip and finished as quickly and carefully as she could, feeling Donoma's sigh of relief as her own when she pulled the fur back over her shoulders.

They leaned against one another waiting for the soup to boil, both falling into a light doze in the process. The bubbling and hissing brought Koko's eyes open and she grimaced a bit before smiling at how quickly she and Donoma had resumed their comfort level. She gently shook Donoma awake.

"Wha...? Oh... sorry Koko - I...."

"Shh, ka'eskone. We need the rest. We will eat, then we can rest some more. It will take a little time, but we will get through this."

"I know, but a healer usually makes the worst patient." Donoma blew out an impatient breath. "I wish I could have seen this coming."

"As do I, Donoma - I would have spared you this pain if I could have."

"I know, warrior. I have always wondered why the Great Spirit chooses to make some things known and keep other things hidden. And how things are chosen. This is something I think I would have chosen to reveal." She grit her teeth and shifted, accepting the bowl that Koko passed to her.

"Those are good questions, ka'eskone. Perhaps you will get the chance to ask them of the Great Spirit one day. But in the interim, I am going to find out who did this to you and why. And then I will exact payment for their indiscretion."

"You do not...."

"I do, ka'eskone. If not for the promise I made to you, then simply because it is who I am... it is what I do, Donoma. I find the guilty and I bring them to justice... one way or another. I cannot do less for you than I would do for strangers, Nutta. Please do not ask me to."

Donoma shifted again, hissing but continuing her movement until she could look directly into Koko's eyes. "I would not ask you to be less than you are, Koko Kanti. I trust you to know what is best... especially when it comes to dealing with things in the white man's world. Just make sure you take care of yourself in the process, warrior mine. It is pointless otherwise."

"I understand, ka'eskone."

They finished the remainder of their meal in silence, then Koko helped Donoma to her feet. They shuffled back to Donoma's tent and Koko eased Donoma back down onto the furs and turned to go... only to find her ankle clasped in Donoma's hand.


"You need rest as well, Koko."

"I know, ka'eskone," Koko replied with a smile. "I will be right back. I want to retrieve the soup for later and extinguish the fire so we will not be spotted from the smoke." Donoma released her grip and true to her word, Koko was back swiftly, placing the still boiling soup in the cold fire pit and settling into her own furs beside Donoma.

It didn't take long and they were soon tangled together as much as they could comfortably manage, sound asleep.


The next few days passed much the same, except for an inordinate amount of rain. They slept a good deal of the time, waking to eat and relieve themselves as nature required and spending time in conversation, healing on the inside as well as their physical bodies.

After almost a week of recovery time, they were both feeling much more normal and were happy to wake to clear skies.

"It is nice to feel the warmth of sunshine again," Donoma commented as they stepped out into it again.

"It is indeed, ka'eskone. Go and enjoy your bath; I will cleanse your dwelling. Then I will see if I can find something fresh for our dinner. I cannot speak for you, but I would not be adverse to a change in our diet."

"Neither would I, warrior mine. Are you sure you can manage the cleansing alone?"

"I am sure, Donoma."

"Then I will go get clean myself. I believe I have lost my sense of smell in self-defense. I would hate to scare off the opportunity for something fresh to eat with my scent."

Koko chuckled. "I happen to like your scent, but you're right... it would probably scare off any game I could find. Besides, you will feel better."

"I will indeed," Donoma agreed. "And so will you."

"I know; I will go when you have returned. By then, I should have completed my other tasks. However, I will accompany you to the creek and you need only call for me if you need my help and I will come."

"I will be fine, warrior, but I would welcome your company."

When they were both clean and well-fed on the prairie chicken Koko had gotten for their dinner, Donoma laughed at Koko's antics and groaning after she finished up the last of the bird.

"That was wonderful, Donoma, but how could you allow me to eat so much?? I am so full."

"Allow you, warrior? When did I start allowing you to do anything?? I have only ever been your advisor."

"You should have advised me more carefully then." Koko paused and looked down at the ground before catching Donoma's eyes and holding them. "Or perhaps instead of simply my advisor, I should offer you a position of significantly more power."

"Such as?" her eyes steady but her lips and voice trembling. Koko placed a kiss on Donoma's hand, then rose from her place and disappeared into her own tent. Donoma watched her go, shaking with nervous excitement - fairly certain what was coming next.

It didn't take long but it seemed like forever before Koko emerged from her home dressed in the leathers Rachel and Donoma had stitched for her with such loving care. Donoma caught her breath at the figure she cut in the full light of day. Koko focused on Donoma's expression, relishing the honest emotion playing over her features.

Koko strode to where Donoma waited, and mindful of both their injuries, gently but forcefully pulled her to her feet. "Join with me, Donoma," she commanded firmly. "Be my chosen mate."


The captain sat brooding in his office. His brother had been right - no damn woman needed a horse as fine as the black stallion Reb Stone rode, and Leroy hadn't deserved to die for trying to give the horse a more worthy master. He certainly hadn't deserved the horrible end he had gotten. George Washburn shook his head. He didn't care what the colonel said - someone was going to pay for his brother's death.

Killing Reb Stone would be a good place to start.

Chapter XXIII

"Neho'e, I do not feel right about this," Honaw complained to Takoda again. They had been following their new course for several days and with each step that took them further from Donoma and Koko, Honaw felt the heaviness settle deeper into his chest. Now, sitting beside the small fire Takoda had built inside his dwelling to stave off the chill that accompanied the rain, he reiterated his position. Takoda sighed and faced his eldest son. Honaw, more than his brothers, was sometimes gifted with the same insight that Takoda himself knew. So the shaman couldn't refute his worries on the grounds that he knew best - they both understood how fallible they could be.

"What troubles you, Honaw? What have you seen?"

Honaw shook his dark head. "It was not a vision, Neho'e. It is more a feeling - a heaviness in my chest that I cannot seem to shake. I think... I believe Donoma Chepi and Koko Kanti may be in trouble."

"You do not think this feeling extends from the difficulties already between them?"

"No, Neho'e. Despite Donoma's anger, she wants to forgive Koko. In her heart, she knows she must to be whole again. It may take her some time to admit that to herself or to allow it to happen, but I do not think it will. She has been miserable alone for far too long. Why would she allow it to continue when the chance for happiness was within her grasp?"

Takoda cut his eyes at his son. "You do not know much about women, do you?" he asked wryly. "They can be the most vindictive creatures capable of holding onto a grudge for years."

"I understand that, Neho'e," Honaw countered seriously. "But I know Donoma's heart - I know how she feels about Koko," he said with a certainty Takoda could not doubt. "She may fight and struggle with it briefly, but in the end she will have to let it go for her own sake... to say nothing of Koko's."

"So if this heaviness is not because of what has happened between them, where is it coming from?"

"I do not know, Neho'e. I only know that I have not been able to shake the feeling of unease from my mind since we left them. I am no longer certain that was the right thing to do, given the circumstances."

"You do not believe Koko Kanti is capable of protecting your sister? You do not trust in the vision I was given by the Great Spirit?"

"I know that Koko Kanti is still recovering from a critical wounding, despite the vigor with which she destroyed the white men that pursued her. Is it not possible that some should have remained to protect them until we were sure she was healed? And if that was not serious enough, we have deviated from our chosen path - if they required help from us, they would not find us."

"Honaw, I appreciate your concern, but you cannot possibly think that a warrior of Koko Kanti's caliber could not find the trail left by an entire tribe no matter how careful we are to hide it."

"What of Donoma, Neho'e? Could she find us if she was the one required to search for us? You know as I do that we are not all gifted with the same visions or the same strength of sight."

Takoda blew out a deep breath. Honaw made some very valid points in his argument and Takoda couldn't disagree with his concern. He also could not deny the fact that he had been given the vision that led them away from their chosen path. The carnage he had witnessed had been disturbing, especially since that was all the vision he had received. Takoda met his son's eyes squarely.

"What would you like to do, Honaw?"

"I would like to take a small contingent of warriors to ensure their safety... at least until I am convinced that Koko Kanti is able to do so on her own."

"You do realize that if you go charging back in there, regardless of your intentions and whether or not they have resolved their differences, you run a very serious risk of being thrashed by not only Koko Kanti, but by Donoma as well? Or that they may no longer be where we left them?"

"I do, Neho'e. But I also feel this is something that needs to be done."

"You feel so strongly then?"

"Yes, Neho'e. I realize now I should have spoken sooner, but at first I thought it was because of all the tension surrounding them. I do not think that is the case any longer."

Takoda nodded his head. "Very well. I will speak to Odahingum. Surely we can remain in this vicinity long enough for you and a small band of scouts to check on them and return. If not... we will figure something else out."

"Thank you, Neho'e. I appreciate your faith in my sight."

Takoda didn't reply with words, but Honaw felt the warmth of his gaze and smiled. Then Takoda wrapped up against the blowing rain and went in search of Odahingum. Honaw did the same before kissing his mother goodbye and heading back to his own home to wait.


Colonel Jonathon Ignatius Spencer stood at the window of his office looking out unseeing at the town stretched out beyond the walls of the large fort. Something was brewing - he could feel it, and he didn't like the way it felt. Unfortunately, he was an officer in the United States Army and he functioned under facts and orders... not feelings and instinct. However, he had learned to have a strong respect for his gut; for now, he would keep a cautious eye out.

A knock at his door brought him out of his musings and he returned to the heavy chair behind the big desk before calling out, "Enter."

Sergeant Jake Clemmons, his aide, opened the door and snapped to attention briefly before relaxing into a more at ease position. "Sir," he announced softly in the low drawl he had. "The Marshall from town is askin' to speak to you. He said it's a matter of some urgency."

Spencer crinkled his forehead at the wording Clemmons used. Most of the men in his regiment were not well-educated and tended to speak plainly. Obviously the sergeant was quoting the Marshall's words. "Then by all means, sergeant," Spencer commanded. "Show him in."

Clemmons nodded and stepped from the office, only to return a moment later with a large man dressed roughly in black denim and a course linen shirt with a badge pinned to the left breast. He extended a hand to the colonel and Clemmons closed the door as he went back to his desk.

"Spence... thanks for seeing me."

"You're always welcome here, Murph. It'd be nice if it was for something other than trouble though."

Stephen Murphy nodded his dark head. "That's the damn truth, though I'm not entirely sure it's trouble... yet."

Spencer leaned forward on his desk. "What's happened?"

"Reb Stone seems to have disappeared. Not unusual, I know, except she was running after Hobbs and his gang when she left outta here. I'm getting a little concerned."

Spencer nodded his head. "I can see where you would be. What do you propose we do about it?"

"Well, I was hoping you might be willing to keep an eye on things in town for a couple days while I ran out to her place. It's possible she went there for whatever reason, especially if she was hurt. You know how she feels about showing weakness."

"Yeah, I do." The colonel sat back thoughtfully. "I don't see why not. There's nothing pressing going on here at the moment. The men could use a new challenge." He looked up to see the Marshall gazing back at him thoughtfully. "I had a squad that asked to go out looking for horses the other day." He shook his head. "We don't really need anymore here, but the cavalry can always use them. Would have been a good exercise for the men."

"They didn't find any?"

"Oh no... apparently they found some...."


"But something's not right about the whole situation. My best wrangler and a lieutenant were crushed by them... or rather, they were trampled by their own horses when they got spooked or something - the corporal wasn't particularly forthcoming with that information. Said they were split up in an effort to cover as much ground as they could and intimated they weren't close enough to see what happened... that by the time he and the others reached them, it was too late. The rest corroborate his story."

"That makes sense, Spence - isn't that how it's normally done?"

"Yes, but that's not what bothers me. Murph, these horses are trained *not* to spook. They have to be to be war horses. So what could have spooked them badly enough that they were not only thrown off, but trampled to death as well? One of my captains, the lieutenant's older brother, in fact, is convinced there is foul play."

Murphy sat up straighter in his chair. "Does he have a reason to think such a thing?"

Spencer shook his head. "None. He just doesn't want it to be Leroy's fault, so he's making noise that Reb Stone is behind the attack."

The Marshall burst into laughter. "You've gotta be kidding me, Jon. You know as well as I do that Reb Stone avoids anything to do with the army as much as possible." He noted the grave expression on the colonel's face. "You're serious??? He's really trying to blame her for his brother's death???"

"He'd like to, Murph. I've told him to drop it, but the Washburn brothers have always been hotheads... especially where Reb Stone is concerned. Think she needs to learn her place."

"Evidently, they were not here five years ago when she showed the town just exactly what her place was. Jon, there's a reason she is the most feared bounty hunter in these parts."

"Preaching to the choir, Marshall. I've come to respect Reb Stone. She's done nothing but good since she showed up out of nowhere and as far as I can tell, the only one's complaining about her being a woman are those stupid enough to try and take advantage of her because of it. I'll keep an eye on Washburn; you go see if you can find Stone. Aside from knowing she is all right, it would be nice to know what happened to Hobbs and his gang."

Murphy rose from the chair and slapped his hat back on his head. "I'll do what I can and let you know what I find out. Shouldn't be gone but a day or two unless something is wrong at her place."

"Stop by here on your way out so I know when you're leaving."

"And on my way back in so you can hear if I find out anything. Thanks, Spence." Murphy gave him a little salute before exiting the office. Spencer turned back to the window to contemplate this new complication.


"I do not know about this, Takoda. You were so sure we needed to leave the winter encampment and change our path to reach the summer camp. I am not certain I can justify turning around again to...."

"No, Odahingum... no. Not the entire tribe - just a small scouting party."

Odahingum shook his head. "Still, Takoda. I do not know. Did your vision not indicate that we needed to leave them alone to resolve their differences?"

"No, my friend. My vision indicated we needed to move from our normal path to avoid the slaughter of our People. It was my belief as a father that Koko and Donoma needed to resolve their problems on their own - we were only making the situation more difficult for both of them. Odahingum... it was past time that we left the winter encampment."

"So why is there a need for a scouting party to return? Surely Koko Kanti is even stronger now than she was when we left them alone."

Takoda sighed. "I know this is frustrating, Odahingum. I do not understand it myself - why would the Great Spirit not share something so important with me? But I cannot discount Honaw's intuition. Though his gift is not as developed as mine nor as strong as Donoma's, he does have some ability. Not sight so much as sense, but it is there. Would it be so difficult to allow him to go check on Donoma if it would give him some peace about them? I have never known him to ask if he did not feel there was sufficient reason to do so."

"Very well, Takoda," Odahingum sighed. "Honaw can go. But he will go by himself. We cannot afford to separate the tribe while we are on this altered path to go on what could amount to a wild goose chase. I refuse to put everyone in danger like that and sending the warriors...." Odahingum shook his head. "I do not want to seem heartless, Takoda, but I have to be honest - these kids... all of them... are beginning to drive me crazy."

"I understand, Odahingum. I think it will be enough for Honaw that he is allowed to go. Thank you for allowing him to set his mind at ease. I will admit I would feel better knowing how they are now that Honaw has stirred things up a bit. Do you think that makes me crazy?"

"No, my friend... I think it makes you a good parent." The chief blew out a breath. "I will ask Keezheekoni to go with Honaw. I am sure he will ask to go if I do not."

"Thank you, Odahingum. It makes me feel better."

Odahingum put an arm around Takoda's shoulders and leaned in to speak softly, though there was no one else in the dwelling to hear. "I would deny this if you told anyone, Takoda, but it makes me feel better too."

Takoda laughed. "I will let Honaw know. I am sure they will start out as soon as they can get started. Are we going to stay put until they return?"

"No... but we will move slowly. Ensure they are aware of our planned path so that they will be able to find us upon their return." Takoda nodded and rose from his place beside Odahingum.

"It will be as you say, Odahingum." Then he headed back into the rain to give Honaw the news.


Honaw exchanged sodden glances with Keezheekoni. They could have waited until the rain stopped, but the urgency Honaw felt prevented that. When he had heard of Honaw's request, Keez had insisted that they head out as soon as possible, regardless of the rain. The sooner they reached their destination, the sooner they would be able to return to their homes and families. A little bad weather was not going to deter them.

"Do you think they will be in the glade where we left them, Honaw?"

Honaw exchanged glances with Keez before smirking just a little bit. "Think about this a minute, my friend. Donoma has Koko Kanti at her beck and call for the first time in five cycles. And she has five cycles worth of anger and frustration to get out in regards to Koko Kanti. Do you seriously think that there is any way Donoma is going to allow them to go anywhere for the next full season?? It will take them that long for Donoma Chepi to release all that pent-up aggression. Why do you think Takoda insisted they have their dwellings?"

"So you really have not had a vision then?"

"I do not have visions, Keez; I can only sense things. And I really do sense that something is not right. It is... it is hard to describe... like a heaviness in the pit of my stomach that seems to center around them. It does not happen often thankfully - and usually only about a battle or a place that is unsafe."

"So why them? And why now?"

"I do not know, my friend. Perhaps because of all the controversy surrounding them; perhaps because I understand Donoma almost as well as she knows herself. But I will feel better once I have had the opportunity to see how they are for myself."

"Well then, let us get there. I am certain the remainder of the tribe is waiting for our return. They are as anxious to know what is happening as we are." He wiped the rain from his eyes and chuckled. "We should have simply stayed with them until things were settled; it would have saved us all a lot of grief."

Honaw laughed in sympathy. "I do not think Donoma would have tolerated the supervision."

Keez paused in thought. "I think you are right, Honaw. I believe I would have made an effort to get away from that much interested interference."

"As I recall, you tried. You were just not as successful as Donoma."

Keez snickered. "I am not as scary as Donoma."

"Keezheekoni, *no one* is as scary as Donoma Chepi on the warpath. I almost feel sorry for Koko Kanti." Their sniggering and chuckles followed them, and despite the rain, they felt better about the trip they were making and their reason for undertaking it. With any luck, they would find that Honaw's gnawing gut had been the result of bad food - that things had returned to normal for Koko and Donoma and they would be able to report the same to the tribe when they reunited with them. And if they were really lucky, the sun would start shining sooner rather than later. Otherwise, it was going to be a long, uncomfortable ride.

Of course what they found when they reached the dell more than made up for the misery they had suffered on their ride. They were going to have some news to share.

Chapter XXIV

They were met by Black and Dapples, and it was clear from the horses' aggressive behavior that something had happened. Honaw and Keezheekoni let the horses reacquaint themselves with the horses of the tribe before they dismounted and then allowed Black and Dapples to satisfy themselves that they were friends. Only then did the make a move towards the dell on foot.

They reached the edge of the small glade and looked down... then exchanged glances and slapped their hands over their mouths to keep from cheering. Koko stood proudly in her fine war regalia holding Donoma firmly in her grasp. At that moment, Donoma pulled away from her and Koko circled. The two men watched what to them was a silent tableau, knowing they would need to share all the details with the entire tribe upon their return.

Mindful of their still healing bodies, Donoma pulled away from Koko's grip and turned her back. Koko circled her carefully then stepped up behind her, threading her arms around Donoma's waist and holding her in place. "Join with me, Donoma," she commanded firmly once again. "Be my chosen mate." Her voice was low and growly and sent shivers up Donoma's spine, causing Koko to smile in satisfaction.

"Tell me why, warrior. What makes you a worthy mate for me?" Donoma asked the question with the intensity it required, but Koko heard the breathiness in her voice.

"I am a strong warrior, ka'eskone - a stalwart defender and protector. I have proven my prowess on the battlefield in defense of my People. I am a skilled hunter and a good provider. Never has my family done without food and shelter."

"That makes you a good prospect for anyone, Koko Kanti. What makes you a worthy mate for me?"

Koko turned Donoma in her arms, refusing to allow Donoma a chance to escape. Donoma brought up her hands, trying to keep a sliver of space between them only to find them crushed against Koko's soft chest. Her breath caught in her throat and she raised her eyes to meet Koko's intense blue ones.

"Nayeli, Nutta," Koko answered softly. "Because I love you, beloved," she reiterated in English, "with all my heart - and I have for my entire life. No one will love or care for you as completely I do. Join with me, ka'eskone. Be my chosen mate, and I will love you and care for you and protect you for as long as we are together."

"How long are you willing to commit to me, Koko Kanti? How long will you stay by my side?"

"For as long as you will allow me to do so, Donoma Chepi, but my commitment to you is forever."

Finally Donoma allowed her hands to slide up Koko's chest, locking them behind the dark head and urging her down to Donoma's lips. A hairsbreadth apart, Donoma licked her lips, gazing at Koko's mouth for a long moment before dragging her eyes back to burning blue. "That is a very long time, warrior mine."

Koko let her eyes drop to Donoma's lips, reaching out with one hand to trace them reverently. She pulled her eyes back to shining green. "It is only the beginning, ka'eskone." Then she leaned down and captured Donoma's lips, plundering her mouth with a passion and intensity that left them both breathless when they separated for air.

"Join with me, beloved," Koko asked for a third and final time. "Be my chosen mate."

For answer, Donoma pulled Koko's mouth back to hers, possessing it with the same intensity as Koko had shown her mere moments before. Then she backed up slightly, allowing her hands to scratch lightly down Koko's neck and torso and smiling at the shiver that followed her touch.

"Come, my mate," reaching for Koko's hand and urging her towards her home. "It is time."

Koko cursed her injury, wishing she could scoop Donoma and carry her into what would soon be their home. Instead, she dropped to her knees and leaned her forehead on Donoma's belly. Donoma let her fingers tangle into Koko's loose hair once more and held her in place.

"Nayeli, my warrior. Until time is no more, I will love you. Now come...." Koko rose from her knees and took Donoma's proffered hands, following her into the tent.


Once they were sure Koko and Donoma were too preoccupied to detect their presence any longer, Honaw and Keez removed their hands from their mouths, but barely breathed as they watched the courtship dance commence. When Donoma and Koko disappeared into the confines of their home, the two men backed away from the edge of the ledge they were reclined on before rising and moving back to the Plain.

"Well, it seems as though your vision was incorrect, Honaw."

"Perhaps, Keezheekoni, but I would feel better if I could talk to them. They were still very careful with one another. Not that I think they are uncomfortable with each other," he pressed on before Keez could protest," but something has happened... beyond Koko Kanti's injuries. Even Donoma was slow and careful in her movements."

Keezheekoni nodded slowly. "Perhaps you are right, hestatanemo. We have a bit of time before we should begin our return to the People. Besides, when they hear of the bonding, they will forgive us for our tardiness. Come," he said. "We may as well be comfortable in our wait." And the two began to gather chips enough to provide a fire for what would be their temporary home until they were able to talk to Koko and Donoma.


Stephen Murphy rode out of the town as the sun rose, hoping to reach Reb Stone's home before the sun reached the horizon. He had never actually been to her home, but he had a good idea where to go and one of the scouts had given him directions after a fashion. So he knew there would be a bit of searching involved; he only hoped it would be easy to find.

There was no path to follow and no real landmarks; he had to rely on his sense of direction and navigational skill to guide him for the first little while. As midday approached, he reached the stream and the lone cottonwood that grew beside in and knew he was close. He took a break, giving his horse a chance to rest and taking the time to walk around a bit. He ate then remounted, anxious to complete his journey and get some answers to his questions.

It didn't take as long as he feared it would and he was soon pulling up in front of her homestead. It was neat and tidy... and so quiet he knew she was not there. Still he approached with caution. Though she knew who he was and had no quarrel with him, the Marshall knew Reb did not tolerate unexpected visitors well. She had made that clear when she still lived in the town, and there was a reason she guarded her privacy so fiercely.

Still, he had an obligation to find her - for his own peace of mind as well as her safety. So he dismounted and walked slowly towards the front of the tiny cabin built from river rock. Murphy knocked several times and when they continued to go unheeded, he lifted the latch and pushed open the door. It was immediately apparent that no one was home, nor had they been for some time. There was no fire in the fireplace and the air was slightly musty - as though the door had not been opened for a while. He looked around inquisitively, not touching anything, but trying to satisfy his curiosity about the woman he respected and outlaws feared.

There was nothing personal out in the open... nothing that told him any more about Reb Stone than he already knew. After looking around once more, he took his leave, careful to close the door and leave the latch out like he had found it.

Murphy went back to his horse, trying to figure out his next move. It was clear that she had gone chasing after the Hobbs gang, but she hadn't returned since. That meant trouble. The question was - what kind? Either she had been ambushed or killed by them or she had been injured and forced to hole up somewhere to heal. Either way, Stephen Murphy had no way to find her.

He clambered aboard his horse and headed away from her homestead. On the other hand, he reasoned, Spence might be willing to send a scouting party to find her, if only to learn the outcome of her run-in with Hobbs. Although given the resentment some of the soldiers seemed to feel towards her, it might not be the wisest course of action the Marshall could pursue. It would bear thinking about and he would have plenty of time to ponder it on his way back into town.


Donoma turned to Koko once they were inside her dwelling - what would soon become their home. She watched as Koko released the ties to shut the outside world out and allow them the privacy all mated couples were entitled to. A little odd, considering they were the only ones for miles, but it was tradition and it helped bolster her belief in the pledge they had just made to one another - made it seem more than just a fevered dream.

Then Koko stepped close enough that their bodies were just touching and Donoma knew that no dream had ever felt so real... so right.

Koko lifted her hands to Donoma's face, allowing her fingertips to follow the planes and hollows so prominent in her features. Her touch was light and compelling and Donoma closed her eyes under the onslaught of intense emotion it created within her being. She felt as though Koko was worshipping her and forced her eyes open to find it was the truth.

She raised her own hands to Koko's face to return the favor, closing her eyes to enhance the sensory feeling. Donoma followed the same path that Koko chose - across her forehead, over smooth eyebrows, down the sharply raised high cheekbones, around the nose, tickling full lips into a smile until they reached the firm jaw.

Donoma felt Koko move closer still and held her breath - nervous and excited at the same time. "Donoma," Koko requested quietly, though there was no one to overhear them in this moment. "Beloved, look at me."

It took a long few seconds for Donoma's brain to catch up with her hearing; when it did, she blinked her eyes open slowly, gazing at Koko with an expression full of love and desire and seeing the same reflected back to her.

Koko's hands moved from her jaw, down the front of her dress to stop at her waist. Then she shifted until her hands were gently cupping Donoma's ass and bringing them into such close contact along their length that there was no room for air between them.

Koko bent her head, gratified when Donoma's hands slid into her hair of their own accord, tangling in the thick locks and pulling her head down with tender ferocity. Then their lips met again and time ceased to have meaning.

When they finally separated the barest bit to reclaim their breaths, they leaned their foreheads together. "I never thought that this would be real," Koko confessed. "I dreamed of it, but I never believed it would actually happen."

"I never allowed myself to dream," Donoma replied. "Not of this... I could not. It would have only served to remind me of the impossibility I would never attain." She looked at the ground and bit her lip before returning her eyes to drown in the blue that stared back at her with complete devotion. "I believe I am going to like my reality much better than I ever enjoyed my dreams."

Her smile was matched by the one Koko sported and she urged their lips together again. This time, however, her hands slid from Koko's dark hair to the ties that held her shirt closed in the front of her body. She gently loosened them, fumbling slightly in her excitement, but knowing instinctively what she needed to accomplish in order to feel the smoothness of the Koko's skin against her own in something other than the capacity of a healer.

Donoma didn't even realize Koko was returning the favor wholeheartedly until cool air hit her bare skin and raised goosebumps along her exposed flesh. She tugged at Koko shirt, lifting it until she could no longer reach and allowing Koko to finish its removal. Then they stood and gazed at one another - finally allowed to look with the eyes of a lover.

"So beautiful," Koko murmured, letting her eyes roam over Donoma's body. Donoma wasn't content to look; her hands began to wander of their own volition - tracing the womanly curves she had not been able to appreciate as a mate til now.

She paid close attention, noting the places that caused Koko to catch her breath and those that caused her hands to roam or to clench. She leaned down to kiss the still healing belly wound, glad for Koko's amazing recuperative powers. When she reached the ties of the trousers, Donoma undid them and pushed them down the long length of leg with a fascination akin to reverence. Koko watched her, feeling humbled by the myriad of emotion she found in Donoma's gaze when their eyes met.

Donoma opened her mouth to speak, but found her breath caught in her throat. At a loss, she reached for Koko's body, wrapping herself around the strong body she craved and merging them into a single being. Koko closed her eyes at the contact, relishing the explosive sensation of skin on skin. Then she surrendered once more to Donoma's urging, and they met in a hot, open-mouthed kiss, tongues plunging and invading as they explored tastes and textures.

Mindful of her limitations, Koko eased Donoma down onto the furs she had prepared earlier with just this moment in mind. No longer were they two divided stacks of furs creating two distinct beds - now they were a single entity covered with a new blanket, waiting to be christened as their joining bed.

They separated briefly in deference to their still healing bodies and collapsed gently onto the smooth surface. Donoma ran her hands over the soft blanket, recognizing it with surprise and looking up into Koko's eyes.

"Where did you...?"

Koko shrugged and looked down at the blanket. "It was in the box of your things. I found it when I was searching for some bandages after you were injured. It was right on top. I thought it was a sign," peeking at Donoma through long lashes. "I remembered it."

"I am certain you did, warrior," Donoma replied with a small smile, stroking the blanket once more. "How many nights did you sit beside me at the fire while Rae'l and Nahko'e and I worked on it? I never thought we would be able to use it as a joining blanket."

"Nor did I, ka'eskone," shifting her hands from the blanket back to the silkiness of Donoma's skin. "I am glad you saved it," letting her hands trail up Donoma's body from her waist to the full round breasts and relishing the widening of darkened, green eyes and the flaring of Donoma's nostrils when her thumbs teased rigid nipples.

Donoma closed her eyes as the first sensation rippled through her body, but couldn't resist the desire to return the same pleasure to Koko. She opened her eyes, meeting the burning intensity in Koko's and reaching out to caress the expanse of bare skin within reach.

Koko closed her eyes, enhancing the sensation for a long moment before nudging Donoma farther back, reclining them completely on the bed. They sighed simultaneously when they were fully stretched out along their lengths, absorbing the sensation of completion and desire that shivered through them. Then they turned their attention to loving one another, claiming one another in the most intimate and precious of ways.


"How long do you thing it will take them, hestatanemo?" Keez asked as the sun touched the western horizon. I do not recall any of our tribe taking so long to join with their mate."

Honaw snickered inwardly, though his expression remained carefully neutral on the outside. "I do not think they are taking so long before joining with one another, Keez. I would be willing to wager that they are *still* joining with each other." He paused. "Do you remember the attention to detail Koko was famous for as a warrior?" Keezheekoni nodded. "Why would you think that she would be any less focused on something that means everything to her?"

Keezheekoni nodded before his eyes widened perceptibly. "You do not think...?"

"I am not going to go any closer to find out, hestatanemo. I value my life."

"Honaw, that is not natural. Not even the strongest among us could last...."

"Not even the strongest among us could defeat Koko Kanti, Keezheekoni. Do you really think there can be a comparison?"

Keezheekoni thought about Honaw's words for a long moment before standing and wiping his hands on his trousers. "I will go hunting... see what I can find for our dinner." He pointed in the direction opposite of the dell where Koko and Donoma were still comfortably ensconced. "I will go that way. I have no desire to find out if there could be a comparison. I promised Calyle I would return from this without any more bruises."

Honaw burst into laughter, then quickly slapped a hand over his mouth. "She is already tired of repairing the damage that happens when Koko Kanti is around?"

"I think she grew accustomed to not having to do so. Besides, I do not believe Koko would let me survive if I interrupted her coupling with Donoma Chepi."

Honaw snickered again. "I think you would have more to worry about from Donoma Chepi."

Keez's eyes widened comically. "I will be over there... very far away over there," scooting off away from their tiny camp to the sound of Honaw's laughter. Honaw watched him go before rising and heading out after him, knowing someone needed to collect more chips if they were going to have a fire. Besides, he didn't want to be around just in case Koko and Donoma had heard them. He valued his life.


Koko and Donoma lay curled up together, gently stroking all the bare skin within reach which was considerable considering their nakedness. An unexpected sound of laughter stilled their movement and they exchanged glances.

"What was that?"

Koko tilted her head slightly. "Honaw... and probably Keezheekoni. They have been here for a while - since before we pledged to one another."

"You knew they were there?"

"I was listening, ka'eskone; I heard their approach. I saw no reason to deny them the opportunity to share in our joy. They will provide witness to the People."

"You are very clever, warrior mine."

"And I am definitely yours, Nutta."

"As I am yours, Nutta."

Koko smiled and shifted until she was leaning over Donoma. Donoma smiled and twined her hands around Koko's neck. "They can wait," she declared and lowered herself to meet Donoma's lips. Honaw and Keezheekoni would be waiting a while.

Chapter XXV

The sun was just peeking over the horizon when Koko stepped from the home she now shared with Donoma. At some point they would need to make some decisions, not the least of which was what to do with her own dwelling now that she and Donoma were joined to one another. But that was not her concern at the moment. Right now her focus was on finding and waking Honaw and Keezheekoni.

It wasn't hard - they hadn't tried to hide their trail from her. She walked right up to them, smiling evilly and then grabbed them by the shoulder as she let out a loud war cry. Both men jumped to their feet, wide awake and looking for the danger that clearly stalked them. All they found was Koko sitting on the ground laughing hard enough that she was biting her lip at the pain it was causing her. It didn't slow her laughter though and a second glance at the two of them glaring at her caused another wave to peal from her mouth.

Honaw planted his hands on his hips. "That was not nice, Koko Kanti."

"Of course it was not, Honaw, but it was very funny. You should have seen the expression on your face."

Keez snickered. "She is right, Honaw - it was quite funny."

"Oh... and like you were not?"

Keezheekoni laughed. "I am sure I was. Admit it, Honaw, Koko got us and very well. We should have known better than to sleep so close to her encampment. She taught us better."

Honaw smiled reluctantly and he shifted his eyes in Koko's direction, glaring as much as he could manage before breaking into unwilling chuckles. "Yes, she did," he agreed. "Congratulations, by the way. We saw your joining ceremony with Donoma. Can I tell you we all believe it is about time things came right between you - how happy it makes us to know you are finally joined?"

Koko smiled. "Not nearly as happy as it makes me... and Donoma." She slowly climbed to her feet. "Come... Donoma has started the fire and I promised to bring you both and some fish back for our morning meal. And I still need to go catch the fish."

"Can we help?" Honaw asked as they cleaned up the small area they had slept in, tamping out the fire and spreading the ashes.

"If you would like to collect a few more chips for the fire, I am certain Donoma would be most appreciative. Then we can have breakfast and you can tell us why you are checking up on us."

The two warriors nodded their heads in agreement, having expected as much. They tossed their blankets over the horses that stood nearby and went out onto the Plain to gather the chips for Donoma. Koko headed down to the stream, determined to beat the boys back to camp.

Donoma, meanwhile, had started the fire in the outside pit and placed water on to boil for tea. She couldn't stop the smile that seemed to be plastered to her face as her mind wandered over and over the events of the previous day. Against all odds... despite her own doubts about trusting herself, she was happy. And even better - she was joined to Koko Kanti. Never in her wildest imaginings had she believed that Koko would love her like she did. For the first time in forever, Donoma knew completion.

Arms wrapped around her from behind and Donoma smiled as she recognized the touch... then scrunched up her nose at the fish smell that accompanied it. "You were successful in your hunt, I smell," Donoma joked as she turned in Koko's arms. "Where is your bounty, great fisherman?"

Koko released her hold on Donoma and turned to pick up the package that she had dropped to embrace Donoma. "Your morning meal, ka'eskone. Honaw and Keezheekoni are collecting chips - they will be here shortly. I will go wash up as I do not wish to offend."

"That is probably a good idea, warrior. Otherwise you might scare the rest away from the camp."

"Even you?"

"Oh no, warrior... you are not that lucky."

"Oh, I do not know about that, ka'eskone. I think I am the luckiest person alive." The sound of gagging interrupted what was headed for a passionate embrace. Koko looked up to glare in the direction of Keezheekoni. Honaw just shook his head and continued on into the camp, dropping the chips he was carrying onto the small pile by the fire. Keez burst into laughter and trotted along behind him, placing his chips on the pile and backing out of Koko's reach.

Koko, however, was not about to let him get away so easily and took one giant stride towards him; Keez took a huge step back. Forward, back - forward, back... until they were at the water's edge. Then, forgetting her injury, Koko lunged for Keez, taking him into the creek with her.

He squealed like a girl, howling at the coldness of the water he was suddenly immersed in. Honaw and Donoma exchanged glances before bursting into laughter. Keez turned to Koko, a wicked twinkle in his eye... until he realized from her expression that she was in a bit of pain. He extended a hand down to her and helped her to stand, then together they exited the stream.

Donoma was the first to notice the look in Koko's eyes and moved to her side. "Are you all right, warrior mine?"

"Yes, ka'eskone," Koko said wryly. "I should have been more careful."

"I should have known better," Keezheekoni said in disgust as he stripped off his wet shirt. "You think one day I would learn."

The other three looked at one another before they all turned to him. "No," they chimed at once, chuckling. He just shook his head before joining their laughter. Then he removed his trousers, leaving him clad only in his breechcloth.

Koko continued on into their dwelling to change her own clothes, returning mere minutes later in her joining leathers. She tossed Keez a fur to wrap around himself to keep from getting a chill as the breeze was still quite cool this early in the morning. Donoma had the fish nearly ready to eat and soon they were sitting around the fire enjoying the morning repast.

When their hunger had been satisfied, Koko turned her attention to Honaw. "So why are you here, Honaw? I thought the People were following the herd."

"Actually, we have moved away from the herd for the moment. Takoda saw a great darkness befall the tribe if we remained true to the path of the buffalo. We will rejoin our brothers when Neho'e sees it is safe."

"That does not answer my original question, though - why are you here?"

"Honaw had a bad feeling," Keez responded after a moment. "Did something happen to you once the People left the area?"

"We had a bit of trouble, but things are better now," Donoma answered. She turned to Honaw. "Thank you for looking out for us, hestatanemo. It is nice to know you are looking out for us, even reluctantly." She opened her arms and Honaw wrapped her up in his strong embrace.

"I am never reluctant to look after you, ka'eskone, but I do not care for the gnawing in my gut when things are not right with you. What happened?" He looked at Koko. "Was it the tension between you two or something more?"

"Something more," Koko confirmed, "though I do not as yet know what. We will be going into town for a bit when we leave this place - I have business there and it is possible that the white lawman there may have some news about whatever the something more is."

"So you do not know."

"No, and at the moment, I do not even have suspicions."

Honaw and Keezheekoni regarded the two women for a long minute before turning their gazes to one another. They nodded satisfactorily and then turned back to Koko and Donoma. "Very well," Honaw decided at last. "Do you have any idea how long you will be gone from us this time? It would be nice to be able to tell the elders when to expect you to be with us again." Koko shook her head, accepting his silent rebuke with a nod. Donoma, however, glared at him until he had to look away from her.

"Donoma," Koko chided softly, but Donoma stopped her protest with a violent shake of her head.

"No, beloved," addressing Koko in English, surprising everyone before reverting back to her native tongue. "As long as we are together...."

"No, ka'eskone - just because we are together now does not mean they stop caring for you... for us. They are well within their right to ask."

Donoma glared at the two men again who sat looking abashed under her obvious ire. "I do not have to like it," she finally relented, "But I do understand."


"I cannot say for certain, hestatanemo. It will depend on a goodly number of things."

"But you do plan to return to the People?"

"We will try."

Honaw nodded his acceptance of her answer. "Fair enough," he conceded. "That will be the response I give the elders when they ask - you know they will... especially when I share with them the fact of your private joining." He turned to Donoma. "You know Nahko'e will be disappointed she missed it."

"You know that will not stop her from hosting the wildest celebration she can manage when we return."

Keez laughed. "I do not think it will keep her from starting the party as soon as *we* return with the news. As long as the People have been waiting for this...." trailing off when he saw Honaw vehemently shaking his head, then noting the looks of consternation both Donoma and Koko were giving him. "I mean...." verbally backtracking and looking at Honaw for help.

"You mean what exactly?" Donoma asked with a frown marring her features. Koko just sat back and waited for the fallout, exchanging glances with Honaw who crossed his arms over his chest to watch.

"I mean," Keez stammered, looking around and realizing he was on his own. "Well...."

"Yes?" arching a dark blonde eyebrow in his direction.

"Oh come on, Donoma," he finally said with a bit of exasperation in his voice. "It did not take a seer of even Honaw's admittedly limited ability to know that you and Koko belong together... you always did. From the time she came to us - from the time you brought her and Rae'l into the tribe - you were always a part of one another. And when she left, you changed. Everyone who watched it happen was waiting for the day Koko returned to you."

Donoma blinked, staring at Keezheekoni for a long moment before shifting her attention to Honaw first and then landing on Koko. "Everyone knew?" she whispered.

Honaw shrugged, then realized she couldn't see his reaction with her attention focused on Koko. "Everyone knew," he agreed softly. "At least anyone who took the time to look."

"Everyone knew?" Donoma whispered again, her eyes never leaving Koko's.

"Everyone except for you and me apparently," Koko replied wryly. "But it does not matter, ka'eskone. We know now and that is all that is important."

"Look at it this way, ka'eskone," Honaw said with a smile. "You will not surprise anyone when they hear the news of your joining. You just have to accept the fact that Nahko'e is going to have the biggest party the People have ever seen. It might even rival the sun festival."

Donoma's eyes grew wide in startlement and she looked at Koko with alarm. "Perhaps we should forget going back to the People until we are gray and stooped with age. I am not sure I am up to that much celebration."

Honaw and Keezheekoni joined Koko's laughter and she wrapped Donoma up in a tight hug when she reluctantly smiled. "Not to worry, Donoma. If Nahko'e starts the celebration when Keez and I arrive, I imagine it will be winding down a bit by the time you and Koko return."

"I can only hope." This time they all dissolved into sniggers.


Stephen Murphy had decided to take advantage of the fact that Spencer was handling the law duties in the small town near the fort for another day or so. If Reb was not at her home, then it was entirely possible that she was still on the trail looking for Hobbs and his gang or any other number of outlaws whose wanted posters still hung on the walls of his office. He would certainly ask for a scouting party if he returned without finding her, but maybe he could at least give them an idea of where to start looking.

What bothered him was her rather complete disappearance without a word. Stone was nothing if not a professional and it worried him more than he cared to admit that she had not returned within a reasonable amount of time. He could almost set his pocket watch by her - even when she was out chasing criminals. She went - she conquered - she came back for her spoils. And since she had not returned to claim her bounty, Murphy decided to do a little investigating on his own.

He headed away from the cottonwood, confident that she had headed west into the Plains - most outlaws went that way as there was very little to stop them once they were beyond the fort and town.

He rode that way until the sun touched the horizon, not seeing any sign of either Hobbs' gang or Reb Stone. He wondered if there was any sense in what he was doing. Surely Stone had proven her skill - why had he chosen this moment to doubt her ability to take care of herself?

Murphy shook his head. The truth was it was less doubt than concern. More times than he could count, Reb had watched his back, and he wanted her to know he would do the same for her. The difference was he had no idea where to start.

He set up a temporary campsite, picketing his horse nearby and starting a small fire to ward off the chill in the air. Tomorrow he would head back into town and see if maybe she had returned on her own. With the accusations that were starting to fly around the army, he needed to find her soon - if only to dispel the rumors that were being spread against her.

The Marshall turned his thoughts back to what the colonel had said. Why would the army want to blame a bounty hunter for the accidental deaths of two of its own? It didn't make any sense - Reb Stone had done the army a number of favors by the outlaws she had removed from their sphere.

Murphy could understand resentment within the ranks over the fact that she was a woman. It had galled him too at first to know that she could operate so successfully outside the norm - not only as a woman, but also as one who basically functioned beyond the laws he was sworn to uphold. But that did not excuse the unreasonable need to hold Stone responsible for something that was not in line with her character. If nothing else, it drew attention to those who stood accusing.

What were they trying to hide?


Donoma and Koko walked Honaw and Keezheekoni back up the small incline to their horses. They had shared conversation and lunch while waiting for Keez's leathers to dry and once they had, the warriors were ready to leave.

"You do not need to rush off, hestatanemo. You are welcome to share our campsite for another day."

"I do not think so, ka'eskone. You are a newly joined couple and it is for the best that the two of you have a little time alone." He didn't say anything more, but the twinkle in his eyes caused Donoma to blush.

"Besides," Keezheekoni added as he mounted his horse. "Explaining the chafing to Calyle is going to be bad enough. I promised her I would not get hurt while I was out here with Honaw."

"Then the two of you stay safe going back to the People. There is someone or something out here targeting something, though whether it is us or the horses or the land or something else all together, I cannot say for certain. Not very informative or helpful I am aware, but it is all we know at the moment. If I find out anything, I will ensure that someone lets the tribe know."

Honaw knelt and drew in the fire pit ashes. "This is the normal route we take following the herd to the summer encampment." He drew a second line in the dirt. "This is the path Takoda currently has us on. It will still lead to the summer camp, but it will take us longer to arrive and will keep us away from the buffalo for a majority of the journey."

Koko nodded her head. "Look for Hassun - the scout you met on your visit into town. He is the one I will send to the People with news." Honaw's eyes grew round in disbelief and Koko smirked. "I knew as soon as I returned to town, Honaw. It was exceedingly brave of you to come looking for me, hestatanemo, but you would not have found me regardless of your bravery or your intentions. I was not ready to talk to anyone... not even you."

"Were you there hiding from me?"

"No, Honaw... I really was gone. But I would have stayed away as long as you remained in the town. I was made aware of your presence before I returned."

He nodded. "I will look for Hassun if we do not see you first." He stepped forward and took Donoma into his arms. "Be safe, ka'eskone... and be happy." She leaned forward and kissed his cheek, then he mounted his horse. "Watch over one another and return to us soon."

The two warriors saluted Koko and she bowed her acceptance of the gesture. Then they turned their horses back in the direction they had come. She and Donoma watched them out of sight; then they headed back down into the dell.

"Shall we head out tomorrow?"

"We can leave when you are ready, Nutta. You lead and I will follow."

"I would prefer that you walk by my side, ka'eskone."

For answer, Donoma clasped Koko's hand and together they walked side by side into their home.

Chapter XXVI

It took them a while to be ready to leave the following morning. They had both homes to pack up; Koko figured they would store one at her home and the other would return to the People when they turned their footsteps in that direction. But for now, they were responsible for both of them and it took a while to disassemble them and load them onto Dapples back. The remainder of their supplies was loaded onto Black's back, and soon they were walking side by side towards Koko's home in the white man's world.

"How long will it take, warrior? How long before we arrive at your home?"

"Well, I have never walked the distance before, ka'eskone, but I believe it will take four of five days if we move at a steady pace. And from there it is half a day's ride by horseback into town if and when you feel comfortable enough to venture there."

Donoma clasped the hand that swung free closest to her own. "I am looking forward to seeing your home, Koko Kanti. I am not as certain about the town, but I am willing to give it a try as long as you are standing right beside me."

"It is the only place I want to be, ka'eskone." Silence ruled for a long time after that.

The next three days were spent traveling slowly across the Plains, sharing conversation and silences in equally comfortable measure. Bit by bit they were relearning each other and every day they found reasons to fall a little more in love with each other.

They were making good time but on the morning of the fourth day, Koko frowned and stopped walking, wondering if her eyes were deceiving her. There was no reason for Stephen Murphy to be out this far, but it certainly looked like his mare picketed in the grass. Donoma slipped her hand into Koko's and Koko smiled down at her.

"What is it, warrior?"

"I am not certain, ka'eskone. The horse ahead is familiar - it appears to be the mare that belongs to the town Marshall, but there is no reason for him to be out this far unless he is chasing an outlaw or looking for someone."

"Well, let us go and find out, Koko. We will not learn anything by standing here."

Koko wrapped an arm around Donoma's shoulders and laughed out loud. "You are a very wise woman, Donoma Chepi. It should not take long and then we can head to the homestead. We are only a half day's ride away, so we should be there by dusk if we continue walking at the pace we have been."

"I told you, warrior... as long as we are together it does not matter where we are. Now let us go determine if this is your law friend. I would like to meet him."


Stephen Murphy blinked his eyes open slowly, noting the sun was completely above the horizon although it was still early. He hadn't expected to sleep so deeply or so long out in the rough. He knew better. He sighed and scrubbed his hands over his face, scratching his neck and stretching. He stirred up the coals of his fire and threw in a couple chips to catch. Then his horse whinnied and he looked up to find two figures leading two horses heading his way. Murphy squinted, trying to make out the identity of the humans.

If he didn't know any better, he'd have sworn the one leading the big black was Reb Stone... except he knew Stone traveled alone and she never walked when she could ride Black. Yet the longer he stared, the more sure he became until they were actually close enough for him to know. Murphy stood to his feet and watched them approach, wondering who the blonde woman was that Stone was obviously so possessive of. Then they stopped in front of him and he extended his hand to Koko.

"Damn good to see you, Stone!" Then he blushed and looked at Donoma as he removed his hat. "Beg pardon, ma'am. I didn't mean to offend. It's just I have been hunting for Reb here and I'm really glad she found me. Name's Murphy... Marshall Stephen Murphy."

Koko's eyebrow rose. She'd never know the lawman to be so effusive in his speech. "Murph, this is my Nutta, my mate... Donoma Chepi."

"Wha... who... your wife? Can you *do* that? I mean...." motioning between them. "You're both women." A beat. "No offense meant, ma'am," to Donoma when he saw the fire burning in her eyes. "That's just not the way things are done around here."

"Happy not to be from here then," Donoma answered in angry, stilted English. Thanks to Rachel's tutoring, she understood everything that was being said - with a little practice, she would be speaking as fluently as she read and understood. But for now, she was still new enough for it to sound unnatural, though there was no mistaking the anger in her voice or expression.

"I'm sorry, ma'am. If Reb has chosen you to be her mate, then you must be pretty special." He held out his hand to her and Donoma looked at it and then turned to Koko before accepting it, finding her hand swallowed by his much larger one. "It's very nice to meet you, Mrs. Stone. Just be careful - there's a lot that won't be so accepting."

"Not need acceptance... have Koko Kanti," Donoma replied, tucking herself into Koko's embrace. Koko held her tightly for a long moment, then kissed the top of her head.

"So why were you looking for me, Stephen?"

Koko's question brought his attention back from the contemplation he had fallen into regarding the relationship and obvious love and commitment between the two women in front of him. He gestured them to a spot around the fire. He took a seat opposite them and cleared his throat.

"I'm sorry I can't offer you a bit of hospitality. This was only an overnight trip and I left the coffeepot at the jail." He sighed and turned to Koko. "Reb, the army is grumbling. Not all of them, but the Washburn brothers are throwing around some accusations... actually Reuben Washburn is the one running off at the mouth. Swears it's your fault his brother Leroy is dead."

Koko sat up a little straighter, though she did not release her hold on Donoma, and focused her intensity on Murphy. "Excuse me? Whaddya mean, Leroy is dead?? And why am I being blamed? I haven't been anywhere near the fort or the soldiers there in almost a month."

"Where were you, Reb?"

Koko glared at Murphy for a long moment. "Do you think I killed Leroy, Stephen?"

"No," he replied without hesitation. "I think they are trying to hide some wrongdoing on their part, though I don't know for sure what it is yet. I've got some ideas; I just need to do some investigating. I was asking because I was concerned. I was coming out here looking for ya when I heard about the accusations."

"Then why was it only an overnight trip?"

"'Cause after I heard what Spence had to say, I figured I better see what the hell was going on. I went out to your place to see if you were there, hoping I could kill two birds with one stone as it were. I decided to come out here a piece thinking maybe I could pick up your trail."

Koko snickered. "Did you find anything?"

Murphy almost growled and he did glare. "You know I didn't, but I had to try. Damn good thing I did too. I woulda missed ya if I'd headed back to town and then... well, I'm pretty sure things woulda gotten pretty ugly before I could let ya know what was going on."

"So what is going on, Murph? I still don't understand."

So the Marshall told her everything the colonel had shared with her, wondering at the narrowing of the blue eyes. When he was done with his recitation, he waited for her reaction. It wasn't long in coming but it was not what he expected. She looked at Donoma and spoke to her in their native tongue.

"I think I know now what happened to you, ka'eskone." Then she looked at Murphy, fire burning in her eyes, though her expression remained stoic. "This is personal, Stephen. I'll take care of this."

"I can't let ya do that, Reb. This is a matter for the law... and the army. Your involvement will only complicate things."

"Then consider them complicated, Murph, because those sons of bitches nearly killed Donoma!"

"Wait... what? How do you know? Are you sure?"

And finally Koko answered his original question - telling him where she had been for the past month... starting with her leaving town to follow Hobbs and ending with their coming upon him earlier. Donoma sat quietly listening to the telling, understanding for the first time just what Koko had gone through before she had arrived at the winter encampment.

"Okay now... wait just a dadburn minute," Murphy said, holding up his hands for quiet. "You mean to tell me that you think Washburn shot your wife? Why? How could he possibly know she was your wife?"

Donoma shook her head slowly, garnering the attention of both Koko and Murphy. Koko caught her eyes and gently cupped her chin. "What is it, ka'eskone?"

"Not know... wanted Black."


"Mrs. Stone?"

Donoma held Koko's eyes for another minute before clasping her hand and turning to look at Murphy. "Fell when shot, but heard."

"Heard what, beloved?"

Donoma closed her eyes and concentrated. "'Take horses. Waited long time to own stallion.' Black moved away... was loud screaming from men." She turned back to Koko. "I do not remember anything else, warrior mine. Everything went dark for me then."

Murphy looked at Koko for the translation, nodding when she repeated Donoma's words in English. "Well, that certainly puts a different spin on things." He looked at Donoma. "Do you remember anything else?"

"No - memory not clear of that day."

"Murph, this is the first significant thing she's remembered since she woke up. She may continue to recall bits of things or she may not. Don't pressure her."

"That wasn't my intention, Reb. But the more she remembers the stronger a case I can present to Spence. You know he's gonna want more than that... especially from someone he don't even know. I'm gonna have to do some investigating... see what I can find out and what I can prove."

"I told you I'm gonna take care of it, Murph."

"Reb, I can't let ya do that... not with all the accusations that are flying around the fort. Most everybody knows it's nothin' but a lot of hot air by some disgruntled soldiers who resent the hell outta you. But that also means we need to do things by the book. We can't just make wild accusations against them without proof." He sighed when Koko glared at him. "Reb, you have more to be concerned with now than just revenge. You have responsibilities."

"I won't be left out of the loop on this one, Murph. I know I have Donoma to take care of, but you can't just ask me to step aside while someone besmirches my name and reputation."

"I know, Reb. I wouldn't ask you to."

"Thanks, Stephen. I'll stay out of your way... at least for now." She paused and looked at Donoma. "Actually, that won't be hard for a while - Donoma and I will be staying at my... our home here until she's ready to venture into the town. So someone, preferably you, will need to come out to the homestead if there is any news."

Murphy arched an eyebrow. "That easy?"

Koko met his gaze then turned to Donoma and held her eyes. "That easy. As long as you're willing to keep me in the loop, I'm happy to stay out of it - for now."

"Understood, Reb. Mrs. Stone?" he asked, extending his hand and clasping hers gently when Donoma turned her attention to him. "I just wanted to offer you my congratulations. I'll look forward to greeting you again when you're ready to come into town."

The Marshall stood from his place by the fire and Koko rose as well. She held her hand out and he accepted it, gripping it firmly. "Take care, Reb. I'll be out again soon."

"We'll look forward to it, Murph. We'll even treat you to some of Donoma's cooking. You'll love it."

"Judging from the pounds she has managed to make stick to your lanky frame, I'd have to agree with you," Murphy said with a chortle. "I'll look forward to it."

He scattered the fire even as Donoma and Koko headed back towards their horses. With a wave, they headed towards the homestead and a moment later, he was taking the most direct path back towards the town. He had work to do.


"He was nice," Donoma said when they were some distance from Murphy's campsite. "I am glad to have met him."

"Even with the rocky start, ka'eskone? I think he expected his hair to catch on fire your glare was so fierce."

"Even with. He was kind after he realized the truth of who we are. But why did he call me Mrs. Stone? My name is Donoma Chepi."

Koko sighed. She'd wondered if she would be able to escape this particular question. "Yes it is, ka'eskone. But remember, in the white man's world I am known as Reb Stone. I took my mother's family name to help me fit in here. And in the white man's world, a man's wife is referred to by his last name with a Mrs. in front of it to show that she belongs to him."

"Although I most certainly belong to you, warrior, you are in no way a man nor could you ever be mistaken for one. I am not sure I understand why he would do that."

"From Stephen it is a sign of respect. In the white man's world, men, especially unmarried ones, refer to a married... joined woman by the title of Mrs. and to an unmarried one by Miss. I do not understand all the whys and reasons they do so, but it seems to be some sort of rule or code that they follow. I can tell them to call you by Donoma, ka'eskone."

Donoma stayed silent for a while pondering that and Koko let her be. She more than most understood the changes Donoma was in for if and when she chose to enter the white man's world; there was no need to rush into a decision. Finally....

"What does that make you, Koko?" At Koko Kanti's puzzled look, Donoma smoothed the furrows from her forehead and smiled, then continued speaking. "If by being mated with you I am now Mrs. Stone, what does that make you? Are you Mrs. Stone as well? I have no family name to offer you."

Koko literally stopped in her tracks, paused in thought. After a moment, she shrugged and looked into Donoma's earnest face. "I honestly do not know, ka'eskone. I have never been in this situation before. Everyone in town and the fort already know me as Reb Stone and most of them call me by Stone. They have since I became a bounty hunter. To them I am an anomaly - that is... I am different from anything that exists in their world. They know nothing of Koko Kanti or my heritage. I figured there was no need to introduce more confusion than I had already brought."

"So how will they look at me?"

"They will see many things, Donoma. Some will see a beautiful young woman. Others will see a stranger or someone not worth their time and attention because of where you come from. Some will look at you as a curiosity because you are different and others will find a friend. That is how it was for me."

"And us, Koko Kanti? If what your Marshall friend said is true, they will not understand us."

"They do not have to understand, ka'eskone. We do not owe them anything."

"But if we decide to stay here...."

"Donoma, if we decide to stay here, we will find some friends among those here. I did. But we do not need to worry about that right now - for now it will just be you and me."

Donoma smiled, a grin so huge that Koko couldn't help but return the expression. "I for one am very happy about that particular circumstance."

"You do not miss your family then?"

"I miss them, yes. They will always be my family. But you are my home, warrior. And as long as I have you, I will always have my family around me. That is enough for me."

Koko pulled them to a stop and answered Donoma's words with a passionate embrace. When they were both breathless, she took Donoma's hand and together they continued on the path towards their homestead.

Chapter XXVII

Stephen Murphy rode into town slowly, nothing in his demeanor giving away the turmoil going through his mind. He rode around to the back of the jail, dismounting and walking the animal into the small enclosure that sheltered her from the sun and bad weather. He hopped off and removed the saddle, currycombing the sweat and dirt from her coat, then setting her up with feed and water. Only after he was done did he head into his office.

He washed his face, trying to remove the grit from his eyes. A knock on the door made him turn around in surprise - most folks didn't knock before they came into his office; it was the jail after all. Before he could call out, the door opened and Col. John Spencer crossed the threshold.

"Am I interrupting?"

Murphy wiped the water from his face and motioned Spencer in. John closed the door behind him and took a seat in front of the desk, waiting for Stephen to start the fire in the tiny stove and put on the coffee. When he was done, he dropped into the chair behind his desk.

"Goddamn but I'm tired."

"Rough ride?"

"Rough night's sleep. I've gotten soft staying here... used to a bed and my coffeepot."

Spencer laughed. "I know the feeling, my friend. I'm pretty sure I'm not going to be happy when it comes my time to head back out into the field."

Murphy's eyebrow went into his still wet hairline. "You expecting that to happen soon?" He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest.

Spencer shook his head. "Not really - most officers of my rank or higher have wives and families who aren't that keen to move out into the wilderness. I'd be more likely to retire here, especially if I can ever coax Miss Molly into marrying me."

Murphy laughed. "She's still telling you no? You must not be asking right, Spence, 'cause anyone with half an eye can see she's gone on you."

"I think the thought of being an Army wife scares her."

"Well, maybe she can talk to Stone's new bride. That should make being an Army wife look like a piece of cake."

"Come again, please? Stone can't have a bride... she's a woman."

The front legs of the Marshall's chair hit the floor and he folded his hands on the desk. "Then *you* can be the one to explain it to them. I'm not gonna argue with either of them about it."

"I take it this means you found her... them?"

"Yep, although actually... they found me." Murphy got up and walked to the stove, pouring himself a cup of coffee and then a second for Spencer at the other man's affirmative. "They were coming in from the prairie, Spence. Stone didn't even know Washburn was dead, though I do have some interesting information about that."

"Oh?" accepting the cup Stephen offered him. "Such as?"

"Whose idea was it for them to go looking for horses? I know you said you sent them, but whose idea was it originally?"

The colonel leaned back in his chair and sipped his coffee. "It came up in a staff meeting," he reflected. "I think it was Leroy, now that you mention it, but I didn't have any objection. Like I told you before, we were going to use them for the cavalry."

"Well it appears that Leroy Washburn might've had other motives."

"What makes you say that, Murph? And better yet, can you prove it?"

And Murphy told him exactly what had transpired from the time he had left, including his entire conversation with Koko and Donoma. When he finished, he sat back and looked at Spencer, watching the emotions flit across his expressive face as the thoughts turned the cogs of his mind.

"And you believe them, Murph? You believe both of them?"

Murphy nodded. "Yeah, Spence... I do. You didn't see them... hear them. They weren't lying, John. Whatever happened out there to Leroy Washburn, it had nothing to do with Reb Stone."

"So, we have a case of 'he said, she said'," Spencer said thoughtfully, pinching his lips between his fingers. "Frankly, I'd be inclined to believe Stone's word, even without the corroboration of this so-called wife. Washburn isn't the kind of officer I prefer to have in my unit, but I wasn't given my pick when I got this assignment. And without proof...."

"Well, without proof, you can't charge Stone with anything anymore than you can Washburn."

"No, but it also means there's no real way to put the rumors down either. It might stir up bad feelings among those who already have issues with Stone... especially if she comes riding into town with some Indian woman claiming to be married to her."

Murphy shook his head. The colonel's attitude was going to cause problems if he didn't keep his thoughts to himself. "Spence, let me give you a piece of advice - don't mock their connection to one another, whatever they choose to call it."

Spencer snorted. "C'mon Murph... you can't tell me you agree with that shit."

Murphy shook his head. "Not my call to make, Spence. But you trust me when I tell you that whatever there is between them, it's real. I wouldn't malign it or discount it in front of the two of them. You think Stone could kick your ass - you haven't seen what Donoma Chepi's reaction would be. She liked to have burned the hair offa my head with the look she gave me."

Spencer regarded the Marshall for a long moment. Then he rose from his seat and went to the door. "I'll give it some serious thought, Murph. And in the meantime, I'll try to see if I can get any more information about the two deaths from the men who returned with their bodies. But I think it's going to end up being some sort of wild goose chase."

"Probably. I'll do what I can on this end and I'll keep in touch with Stone. Hopefully we can get to the bottom of this before she and her mate venture into town."

"With any luck, it'll be a while before they do. I'm not sure what sort of reception they'll get."

And with that Spencer walked out the door of the jail and headed back to the fort.


"You are sure about this, Honaw?"

"We witnessed it with our own eyes, Nahko'e. We saw the courtship dance, the mating kiss and their move into Donoma Chepi's home together. And if that does not qualify as enough, we spoke to them of their commitment to one another. Finally, Donoma has accepted the truth of them in her heart and mind. They are joined."

Litonya danced for joy for a very long moment, drawing attention to herself and bringing many of the tribe closer to learn her news. Many suspected, since they were all aware of where and why Honaw and Keeheekoni had traveled away from the tribe alone. However, they had all waited a long time to hear this particular bit of gossip and no one wanted to spoil Litonya's moment.

After a long moment, Litonya raised her hand and called the People to her fire. Swiftly, they gathered closer, anxious to hear what she had to say.

"My friends," she greeted them. "It gives me much joy in my heart and happiness in my feet to share the news that my daughter Donoma Chepi has mated with her chosen warrior Koko Kanti." A loud whoop went up from many of the voices surrounding her, though there were a few dissenters.

"How can we know this, Litonya? Who bears witness to this union?"

"I do," Honaw spoke up firmly, doing his best not to growl.

"As do I," Keezheekoni replied. "Even though it is not at all necessary that there *be* witnesses for a joining among us to be recognized, Honaw and I saw the entire mating ritual. And if that was not enough," glaring around at the few who dared questioned not only Koko and Donoma, but also his and Honaw's honor, "we spoke to them about it. They are mated."

"So it is written," Odahingum stated without hesitation.

"So shall it be," Takoda answered.

"We must celebrate," Litonya exclaimed when the men finished their posturing. "We must celebrate and offer our thanks to the Great Spirit."

Takoda laughed, though he couldn't keep the grin from forming on his face. "You are simply looking for a reason to have a good party," he accused and Litonya didn't deny his words. "But I think you are right, Nutta. We should commemorate this event. We have lived under a cloud for so long because of the unresolved tension between Donoma and Koko. It will be good to celebrate a return to the peace we knew before the rift." He turned to Honaw. "When do you expect them to return?"

"I do not, Neho'e... at least not for a while. Koko Kanti has unfinished business in the white man's world, and she could not say how long it might take her to complete it. She did say they would return at some point for your blessing and the blessing of the elders, but that may not be for some time."

"I think we can celebrate without them," Litonya declared, "and then we will celebrate again when they return to us." Odahingum laughed with enthusiasm.

"I agree. We can rejoice at their good fortune and ours now and then celebrate their joining together with them later." He turned to Keezheekoni. "Do they know how to find us... do they know we have left the path of our buffalo brothers?"

"They are aware, Neho'e," Keez said with a respectful nod. "We ensured they knew what was going on with the People before we took our leave of them."

"Then it is settled," the chieftain announced. "We will have a party now and a celebration later."

At this proclamation, another cry arose, even from those who still questioned the validity of the joining. A party was a party and any excuse for one was reason enough... especially after the dark cloud they had traveled under lately. It would be good to enjoy themselves again.


"It is very big, warrior," Donoma said as they approached the tiny cabin she called home in her life as Reb Stone. "What is it made of?"

"Mud," Koko replied succinctly. "And river rocks."

"It is very pretty," Donoma commented after a moment. "I like it."

Koko looked down at her indulgently. "Would you like to see the inside?" Donoma nodded and Koko took Dapples' reins from her hand and looped them loosely with Black's around the hitching post. She tugged gently and led Donoma onto the small covered porch, dropping her hand to open the door. Then Koko pulled Donoma into her arms.

"If we were a traditional couple in this world, one of us would carry the other across the threshold to mark the beginning of our new life together in our new home. However, although I appreciate the sentiment, we are not a traditional couple in any sense of the word as far as the white man is concerned and I have no desire to anger my healer by straining myself."

"You are a very wise woman," Donoma started before narrowing her eyes in Koko's direction. "Wait a minute, Koko Kanti - are you saying I am too heavy for a strong warrior... or you are too weak for a lightweight such as myself?"

Without warning, Koko scooped Donoma into her arms, hiding the wince the effort cost her as it pulled at still healing flesh. Not to be deterred, however, she captured Donoma's lips in a passionate embrace, kissing her ardently as she stepped across the threshold and into the cabin.

The lip lock went on heatedly for some minutes before they were forced to pull away slightly to accommodate their lack of air. Donoma closed her eyes and leaned her forehead into Koko's, smiling softly.

"I take back what I said, warrior mine."

"Which part, ka'eskone?" Koko asked with a chuckling tone.

"You are not weak."

"Am I still wise?"

"Yes, but not as much as I am," Donoma admitted smugly. "You see, I have you for a mate. You cannot possibly compete with such wisdom." Koko pulled her head back to comment and Donoma's eyes opened in surprise, widening more when she looked around. "Oh... my...." she breathed. "When did we move inside? You really...? And here I thought Mother Earth was simply stretching her legs when I felt movement. You um... you can put me down now."

"I happen to like where you are," Koko confessed, though she loosened her hold on Donoma and let her slide down til her feet touched the floor once more. "However, we will come back to the remainder of our discussion later. First, I need to unload the horses and get them settled and you need to acquaint yourself with our home."

"I will help you unload things, warrior. Then we can come back inside and you can help me get acquainted with our home. Despite your impressive display of strength, I have no desire for you to overexert yourself by caring for everything on your own. We are mates, Koko Kanti - let me help you."

Koko smiled. Here was the child she remembered whose memory she'd cherished grown up. She nodded her head and took Donoma's hand, allowing her mind to travel back to another place and time as they walked back out the door together... side by side.


Even at the age of seven, Donoma had been small - not only short, but petite... dainty. It was one reason Takoda was so protective of her - she simply wasn't as big as the other children her age. She wasn't as big as some who were younger than she was. But she had a fierce determination to do anything and everything Koko did... even when she really shouldn't.

So it wasn't all that surprising to Koko that Donoma insisted she was old enough to begin training as a warrior. Litonya was horrified - Koko Kanti was an anomaly; an accepted anomaly, but an anomaly nonetheless. Most women of the People never fought... never even held a weapon... never learned to defend themselves. She couldn't imagine someone like Donoma trying to learn. Not only because of her gender and her size, but also because of her gift - surely she knew better.

Takoda, on the other hand, knew Donoma would not be convinced that she was unable to do anything her beloved best friend could. This was a lesson that needed to be learned by hard experience. So he gave his consent for her to begin her training, but only allowing Koko to be her teacher. He knew not only would she take it seriously and try to teach Donoma, but she would also be better equipped to let Donoma down gently when she was unable to keep up.

He hadn't figured on Koko's desire to see Donoma happy or Donoma's resolution to make Koko proud of her.

The first day had been grueling for them both. Koko had shown Donoma what a real warrior went through on a daily basis during their training period. Several times Donoma wanted to cry in frustration or pain, but she bit her lips and continued to try and follow the instructions that Koko gave her. When the day was over, Koko invited Donoma to her fire. They sat down together side by side; Koko folded her hands together and looked seriously at Donoma.

"Ka'eskone, why are you doing this? Why are you so determined to become a warrior? That is not your path, Donoma... you know this."

"We are best friends, Koko. I want to be able to help you... to protect you the way you protect me, and I cannot do that if I am not a warrior. It is my place to help you."

Koko took both of Donoma's small hands in hers. "Donoma Chepi," she said tenderly. "You have done more for me as a seer than I have done for you or the tribe as a warrior. Do not discount your strengths, my friend. You are a formidable opponent in your own way. However," she continued before Donoma could protest, "I am willing to teach you to defend yourself if you would like to learn. It is not the same as being a warrior, but it will give me a measure of comfort."

"How so?"

Koko's eyes widened. She should have known better than to confess so much so easily. "It will make you strong without forcing you to become a warrior."

"I would like that. I would like to be strong like you."

Koko smiled, and so began Donoma's training in self-defense.


Donoma caught the smile and faraway expression on Koko's face and squeezed the hand she held to get Koko's attention. Koko came back to the present with a start and allowed Donoma to pull them to a stop, her eyebrow arched in question.

"What are you smiling at?" This got Donoma a full-out Koko Kanti grin.

"Your words earlier reminded me of a certain precocious seven year old who was determined to help me by becoming a warrior."

Donoma smiled wryly. "Do you know how close I was to quitting after that first day? I hurt so badly.... I was so happy when you offered to teach me differently." She paused in thought. "Would you have taught me to be a warrior if I had insisted?"

"For as long as you would have been willing to train, ka'eskone. But I knew then even as you did that being a warrior was never a part of your destiny."

"No, but I remember how proud I was to learn the defensive techniques you taught me."

"I remember," Koko answered fondly and they both let their memories journey back to that time and place.

Chapter XXVIII

It was early, before the sun peeked over the horizon, when Koko called softly for Donoma. Takoda blinked sleepily in the darkness, wondering why he had thought that this was such a good idea. Surely Koko could have waited until a more decent hour to begin Donoma's training. Then he remembered that she had not been excused from her regular chores and duties and figured she was trying to fit it in without disrupting her normal routine.

Donoma stumbled around quietly, trying to slip into her moccasins without disturbing the rest of her family. She finally made it outside and Honaw sat halfway up and looked at Takoda through partially opened eyelids. "Why is Donoma Chepi wandering outside in the dark with Koko Kanti? It isn't even close to daylight yet."

"Koko Kanti is going to teach your sister to be a warrior."

That made Honaw sit all the way up and open his eyes to look at Takoda fully. "Excuse me? Neho'e, I know I misunderstood you. Donoma is a seven year old girl - a seven year old girl gifted with sight by the Great Spirit. She has no business training to become a warrior."

Takoda sat up and then rose fully, motioning to Honaw to follow him outside. He stirred up the banked fire and added a few chips, waiting until the blaze caught. With a flick of his wrist, he pulled his blanket more fully around him and took a seat; Honaw did the same.

"She wants to learn, Honaw. She must learn that not all are cut out to become warriors. And Donoma being who she is, she will not learn unless she tries for herself."

Honaw's brows rose, but he did not smile. "You expect Koko Kanti to keep her from becoming such? Neho'e, I cannot believe Koko would be so unfair to her advisor."

Takoda shook his head. "I expect Koko Kanti to be honest with Donoma. If she is honest... if she is fair... Donoma will soon realize that she is not meant to be a warrior. Her gifts lie elsewhere. Koko knows this. She will do what is best for Donoma."

"You trust her." Takoda nodded. "But you do not trust us... why?"

"It is not a matter of trust, Honaw. It is a matter of responsibility." Takoda sighed when Honaw frowned. "Donoma is not like the rest of us - not simply because she was not born of our blood or because she has such a strong gift of sight, but because there is something different about her soul. It is old, Honaw - it has seen many things and borne many burdens. The rest of the People sense this, even if they cannot understand what sets her apart from them. It is why the other children hesitate to include her and why the adults shy away. It has made her sensitive... and the fact that she is small for her age only compounds that."

"That still does not explain why you allow Koko to teach her things we are not allowed to. I know she is a better warrior, Neho'e, but Donoma is ours. Shouldn't the responsibility for instructing her be ours as well?"

"Not in this case, Honaw. When Donoma found Koko Kanti and Rae'l, it was because one old soul called out to another. They took responsibility for one another from the beginning. Donoma would never accept training from you or any of her other hestatanemos; as much as she loves each of you, the bond she shares with Koko Kanti is what compels her to this path. She will soon come to understand it is not a wise choice for her."

"You believe so strongly, Neho'e... have you seen?"

Takoda shook his head. "Only what I can see to be truth between them with my own eyes. The Great Spirit has shown me nothing else regarding them. However, if it would make you feel better to observe them, I will grant you permission to do so...." He held up his hand to keep Honaw from answering before he could finish. "With the understanding that you are not allowed to interfere. You have to trust that Koko Kanti will do what is best for Donoma."

Honaw nodded gravely. Despite his misgivings about allowing Donoma the opportunity to train as a warrior, he trusted Koko Kanti completely. It was just hard to accept such a dramatic change in Takoda's attitude concerning Donoma's safety that he was having a difficult time wrapping his mind around the changes.

"I will not interfere, Neho'e. I will simply watch and report to you what I learn."

"No Honaw... there is no reason to report anything to me. I told you - I trust Koko to do what is best for Donoma... just as I would. Just as I would trust you and your hestatanemos had the obligation and responsibility fallen to you. Now go... the sun will be up soon and Koko will have started Donoma's training without you."

Honaw nodded and rose from his place then headed out towards the prairie where he suspected Koko would start Donoma's training. Takoda watched him go, shaking his head. He couldn't blame Honaw for his questions; he only hoped Koko would be as understanding.

Honaw found Koko and Donoma about where he had expected - he knew if Koko was going to train Donoma, even if it was only to show her that being a warrior was not her path, she would take it seriously enough to train her as she would any other warrior candidate. And since the People moved very slowly with the grazing buffalo, the spot didn't change that often or that fast.

So he took a seat close enough to watch but too far away to be a distraction; then he waited... curious as to how Koko would accomplish what Takoda expected of her. He believed Koko had Donoma's best interests at heart, but sometimes it was a difficult line to walk - Koko stretching to adulthood while Donoma remained a child.

Koko was adjusting the straps on the small knapsack, making sure it fit correctly. Then she rose and looked at Donoma, crooking an eyebrow at her in question and receiving an affirmative nod. She smiled briefly, and they took off at a gentle lope with Honaw following at a safe distance behind them.

Koko led Donoma out onto the plain where the buffalo were milling in the pre-dawn darkness. Honaw frowned - warriors didn't gather chips... it wasn't part of their responsibility to the tribe. Then he cocked his ears and forced himself to focus until he could just make out Koko's words.

"It is the job of the Nahko'es and the nahtonas to collect chips for the fire. But I am going to teach you as my Neho'e taught me - and he taught me that it is the responsibility of the warrior to protect and defend. And if in doing so we are able to ease the burden of those who feed and clothe us by their efforts on our behalf, then it will be to our credit when our time comes to face the Great Spirit for our reward." Donoma's eyes were wide and round as she listened to Koko speak of the warrior's ways, knowing by the earnestness in both eyes and voice that Koko spoke the truth to her. She nodded and waited for the knowledge Honiahaka had imparted to his daughter that she was willing to share.

"So to that end, this morning we are going to fill your pack with chips. It will serve as your weight as you run and train today. Then tonight, we will give them to the women of the tribe to use for their fires. We will do this every day until your warrior training is complete. It will help you build strength and endurance and it will also keep you a contributing member of our society. My Neho'e felt very strongly about that."

Donoma's nose crinkled adorably in distaste and Koko had to bite her lips to keep from smiling. Picking up chips was her least favorite chore and she had secretly hoped that warrior training would get her out of that particular job. However, Koko would not lead her astray - she had promised to teach her and Donoma knew Koko would teach as she had been taught until such time as Donoma was a warrior in good standing or she decided to quit the training.

So Donoma sighed deeply and began slowly picking up chips... until she realized that Koko expected her to run. Then the race was on.

She filled the pack up quickly, then they were headed out across the plain at a run. Koko deliberately went slower than normal to allow Donoma to keep up, but fast enough that she had to push herself to do so. They traveled in a wide circle, jumping and rolling along the ground at odd intervals. Donoma wondered what any of it had to do with becoming a warrior, but Koko was so good at it, there was obviously a point in learning. So she bit her lips to keep back the tears that wanted to fall and pressed on, intent on keeping up with her best friend and now teacher.

They ran all morning and Honaw was impressed by Donoma's determination and Koko Kanti's fairness. Everything she had done so far was exactly as she had done with him and Keez and the rest of the warrior trainees of his age group. There was no quarter given for the fact that Donoma was much younger or smaller or that she was Koko's best friend as well as her warrior advisor. Honaw knew that was because Koko knew all too well that those things didn't matter on the battlefield - therefore, they had no place in training. Either you learned or you died.

When the sun reached its midday zenith, Koko brought them to a halt and Donoma fell to the ground unmoving. Koko knelt beside her, speaking so softly Honaw couldn't make out the words, but it was clear from the look on her face and the look on Donoma's that Koko was concerned with Donoma's well-being. Donoma was equally unwavering in her single-mindedness to continue whatever course Koko had set out for them.

With a nod of acceptance, Koko rose from her place and began giving Donoma instructions on her next task... in this case, that of building a fire for the two of them to share.

"Eventually, you will learn to hunt and trap and fish as all warriors must to provide for their needs and the needs of their family, but today we will share the meal that my Nahko'e prepared for us." Koko opened her own pack and removed the food that Rachel had given her that morning - meat pies and trail bars. Donoma accepted the food, but she merely looked at it for the longest time... so long that Koko raised an eyebrow at her questioningly and reached to take the sustenance away. Donoma shook her head and clutched the food to her.


"I will eat, Koko Kanti. I just need to rest for a few moments."

"Rest quickly, Donoma Chepi. We still have much to do today."

Donoma sighed heavily, but started eating, knowing if the afternoon went like the morning had, she would need every bit of strength to endure to the end.

Koko allowed Donoma to rest a little longer than she normally would, not taking any pleasure from the pain Donoma was suffering but knowing it was the only way for the child to realize that being a warrior was not her path. But far sooner than Donoma wanted, Koko was putting out the fire she had so painstakingly built and standing to her feet.

Donoma rose slowly, the heavy pack making it difficult with its added weight and distorted balance. Finally she was standing and she looked at Koko expectantly. Koko smiled gently.

"One of the first things a warrior needs to learn is how to listen," she instructed softly. "Not only to my words, but also to the world around them." She blew out a breath. "However, I do not think that should be our primary concern with your training at the moment... not when Takoda is still training you to focus your gift inwardly. You must master your gift of sight before we can turn your attention to the world outside your mind."

"But Koko...." Donoma stopped speaking as soon as Koko held up her hand and looked at her.

"There are still many part of warrior training you can work on in the meantime. Today we are going to work on balance." Koko knelt and opened up her pack, removing two smooth, heavy stones from within. "Hold out your hands, palms up," she commanded softly and Donoma did as she was told, accepting a stone into each hand. "Now... stand perfectly still, wavering neither left nor right, forward or back."

Donoma's eyes widened. Surely Koko had to be kidding... this wasn't part of warrior training, was it? Donoma had expected warrior training to be about fighting and technique and defending herself - not about picking up chips and running and holding heavy rocks.

She felt herself falling to one side and shifted her foot to keep herself from falling. Immediately Koko was in her face... not in a hateful way, but drawing Donoma's attention to herself. "Donoma Chepi... look at me," waiting for the green eyes to lock on hers. "You must focus, Donoma. You have to be able to maintain your balance in all types of situations without thinking about it. But to ingrain that behavior, you must first train your body to do so. That is what this exercise is about... focusing your mind so that your body learns to do instinctively."

"This is hard, Koko Kanti," Donoma stated plaintively.

"Yes, Donoma... it is. It is also necessary. This is how my Neho'e taught me and how I have trained those I have instructed. I know no other way to teach you."

Donoma nodded slowly. "I will try, Koko Kanti. I will do my best."

"That is all I ask, Donoma. It will not come easily or quickly. But it will come."

Honaw watched in silence as Donoma endeavored to remain completely still and balanced. It was so difficult, he remembered, thinking back to the time when he had been the one training. Koko had been a little less indulgent with those already in warrior training. They should have had balance and endurance, but she had found them lacking. Not only the trainees, but also the instructors - she had embarrassed the lot of them who challenged her, as Honaw recalled.

So he sat and observed, noting that even though Koko seemed to be in a state of meditation, she was hyper-aware of Donoma's every movement. For hours Donoma stood and Koko knelt in front of her. Only when the sun was stretching towards the horizon did she rise and remove the rocks from Donoma's hands. Donoma's arms dropped to her sides and her chin went to her chest, but otherwise she didn't move. Koko placed the stones in her pack and she motioned to Donoma to move. Unlike the morning, Koko did not force Donoma to move at a run. Instead, they walked briskly back towards the camp, Donoma tripping and stumbling to keep up.

When they reached the camp, Donoma went directly into the home she shared with Takoda and Litonya and Koko continued on to her own. After several minutes, Honaw followed Donoma's steps while Takoda crossed from Odahingum's tent where he had been sitting with the chieftain.

"May I?" waiting for Koko to invite him to sit before doing so. She motioned to the seat beside her and Takoda took the place she offered. Koko looked at him and cocked an eyebrow, waiting expectantly. "How did it go?"

"Honaw did not speak to you?" knowing he hadn't but interested in hearing why he'd had Honaw keeping an eye on them.

"You know he did not, Koko Kanti. There was no opportunity for us to do so... even if I had wanted to do so. He went of his own accord, Koko Kanti. He could not understand why I would allow you to teach Donoma Chepi the way of the warrior when I have been adamant about protecting her."

"He did not trust me?"

"He did not trust *me*. There is a difference. I did notice that Donoma looked as though she wanted to cry."

"She did well, Takoda. I pushed her - not hard, but I did push. She never cried and she never quit."

"Do you think she will take to it then?"

"No, Takoda; she wants to do this for me... not for her. I am going to talk to her after the evening meal and give her another option. I am going to offer to teach her some defensive arts. Personally, I would feel better if she could defend herself and it will help her body to become stronger. I think she would take to it much better than the hard-core training that the warriors go through. But I will not force her, Takoda; it will be her choice."

"I understand, Koko. Thank you for looking out for her."

Koko smiled. "She is my best friend, Takoda... my warrior advisor. It is my privilege to do so for as long as she will allow it."


"Did you really tell my Neho'e that?" Donoma asked as they slowly unloaded the horses. The saddlebags were placed on one side and the rest was stacked neatly on the other to be put away in the small lean-to that was attached to the cabin. They released the horses to run in the meadow behind the small house and started picking up the things to put them away.

"Yes," Koko finally responded. "I did."

"I am glad I did not know that before we talked; I was already angry enough at you. That would have simply made it worse."

"Because I lied?"

"Because you took my choice away when you left. But we have talked about that, and you did give me the choice you told Neho'e you would. I am so glad you did. I liked learning the things you taught me; it made me feel strong and capable."

"You were always strong and capable, ka'eskone. I simply helped you focus." They put away their loads and returned to pick up more. "Tell me... do you still do the exercises I taught you?"

Donoma smiled. "Up until your unexpected return to my life, I did them every day. It was a way to keep you close even when I was alone. No one bothered me when I was engaged in practice. But for some reason I have been a little preoccupied since your arrival."

Koko grinned. "I cannot imagine what could have possibly caused you to lose focus like that. But perhaps we could work on it together again."

"I would like that, Koko. It is something I was always happy to share with you."

"So... tomorrow morning then or would you prefer tonight instead?"

"Tomorrow morning - it is the most peaceful way to start the day. Besides, you promised me a tour when we are done here and if you want to know the truth, I would like to spend tonight just... connecting."

"I would disagree on that point, ka'eskone... the most peaceful way to start the day, I mean. I would never disagree about connecting with you, beloved. There is nothing more precious to me than that."

"Then let us finish putting things away, Nutta. I want my tour and some quiet time with you. Tomorrow is soon enough to begin our exercises again."

Koko smiled at Donoma's words and hefted the last of their belongings into her arms. "Take the saddlebags inside, ka'eskone. I will return as soon as I have stored these. Then you will have your tour."

Donoma returned her look and headed inside. Life had certainly taken an interesting and unexpected turn and she was looking forward to exploring it with Koko.

Chapter XXIX

"This bed is very decadent, warrior," Donoma commented when they were curled up together later that evening. Koko had been as good as her word and she had taken Donoma around the small meadow and down along the small creek that ran behind the cabin. Donoma took great delight in watching Black and Dapples chase up and down the wide prairie. She idly wondered what determined the boundary they seemed to respect, but it was only a passing thought. Mostly, she was simply enamored of the beauty surrounding her - surrounding her being quite literal in her case.

Donoma leaned back into the strong body wrapped around hers as they watched the sun set. Only when the sun dropped below the horizon did they head back indoors, leaving the horses to play. It was then that Donoma sat down upon the featherbed for the first time, a look of shocked pleasure crossing her face. Koko just grinned at her, sitting down and pulling Donoma into her arms before laying them down together in the middle of the bed.

"You did not try the bed when you came in earlier, ka'eskone?"

"I was waiting for you, warrior. You promised me a tour - I expected that to include the bed." Koko laughed and Donoma smiled at the joy that spread throughout her at the sound. "Instead, I emptied out the saddlebags and put things away. I probably did not put things away where they belong, but for the time being they are put away."

"You did not need to do that, Donoma."

"I know," came the reply. "But it gave me a chance to look around a little, Koko. You are very skilled, my warrior. You have created a lovely home here... very pleasant."

"I have had time to make it comfortable - to learn how to create the things I needed to be so."

"You have been happy here then?"

"I have been... content... here." Koko sighed. "I expected this to be my home until I died, Donoma. I never thought I would ever go back to the People... not for any reason. When I was not out hunting bounties, I was here, and you know I was never one to sit quietly."

"Unless you were listening."

"Unless I was listening," Koko agreed. "But I could not sit and listen all the time. So I had plenty of time to build this place and to make it a comfortable place to be. I discovered I am not fond of unexpected storms if I have no where to escape to. Denim does not dry well and it chafes."

"Do you like it here?" No accusation, just curiosity.

"I like parts of it," Koko said honestly. "The peace, the privacy, the featherbed," she added with a sly grin. Donoma chuckled. "I would have remained content, Donoma, but I never would have been happy."

Donoma listened to the words and the tone and snuggled further down into Koko's embrace. "I could be happy here, Koko. The bed is very comfortable and I like the cabin. But I will be happy anywhere we are together."

"As will I, beloved." A beat. "What would you like to do tomorrow?"

Donoma shrugged. "I do not know, Koko Kanti. I have never been away from the People like this before. I have never had to think about it... never had to choose. What do you usually do?"

Koko squeezed Donoma gently. "It depends," she answered truthfully. "Some days I would go into town... for supplies or to check in with Stephen or just for a break from my own company. Most days, though, I would stay here. There are always things to do, especially with the garden patch at this time of the year and throughout the summer." Donoma nodded, remembering the small bit of cleared land. "And there are always repairs and upgrades to work on - my next project was actually to make a workable tub for that space over there," pointing to indicate the area of the cabin she meant.

"Why would you want a tub, Koko?"

"For bathing in, ka'eskone... to get clean."

"But why do you need one, warrior? You have a perfectly nice stream right outside your door... literally."

"Ah, Donoma... one day you will have to let me introduce you to the pleasures of a hot bath." Donoma's brows furrowed and she sat up to look at Koko Kanti.

"Why one day, Koko? Why not now?"

Koko chuckled. "Well, mostly because I have not built the tub yet and the only other place to get a hot bath nearby at the moment is at Miss Kitty's place in town."

Donoma scowled. "Who is Miss Kitty and why does she have the only place to get a hot bath?"

"I promise I will introduce you if and when we ever go into town. She owns the local saloon and brothel and she already knows all about you. She's the one that looked after me when I first came to town - gave me a place to sleep and taught me who and what to look out for. She has spent many nights listening to me talk about you."

"And why does she have a tub? Are they not common for the white man?"

"No... they are considered a luxury. It seems that more folks back east have them... you know, where the big cities and the wealthy are. White men that travel out west though, they tend to have little room or regard for items that are deemed luxuries. So Miss Kitty is quite proud of the fact that she has one; besides, it brings in quite a bit of business for her."

Donoma cocked a questioning eyebrow at Koko. Koko smiled and smoothed it out.

"She runs a brothel, ka'eskone," she reiterated, then realized Donoma had no frame of reference for the term. "She keeps a house where women are available for mating for a price." There was a look of horror in Donoma's eyes. "I know, Nutta, but it is the way of the white man here. But," Koko continued, "Miss Kitty has a bathtub that she also rents out for a small fee and after I have been on the trail for days, it is a nice treat."

Donoma chewed her lip thoughtfully. "Then perhaps we need to make a trip into town. I believe I would like to meet Miss Kitty and see this bathtub."

"Are you sure, ka'eskone? I do not want you to be uncomfortable and people will stare. Not because you are of the People or because you are a woman, but because you are new and different. They will watch you to see if you can function in their society."

"Are you trying to talk me out of this warrior? I thought you wanted me to go into town."

"I do, Nutta, but I want you to go on your own terms... not because you feel compelled to do so."

"Will you be with me, Koko Kanti?"

"I will not leave your side, ka'eskone."

"Then I have nothing to worry about."

Koko smiled. It had been a long time since someone other than herself had shown such unwavering faith in her and she found she liked the way it made her feel. The fact that is was Donoma simply made it sweeter. "We can go into town whenever you want, Donoma. I told you that decision would be left completely up to you."

"Then let us go into town tomorrow, Koko Kanti. I believe it would be better to go sooner than to wait."

"And why is that, ka'eskone?"

"Several reasons, actually. One is because I cannot let this fear rule me; another is there will be little time for people to start talking... and we both know they will - it is the nature of things. But mostly because I could not find anything to make dinner with that did not come out of the saddlebags."

Koko laughed at the seriousness with which Donoma delivered her reasons. Donoma sat up and crossed her arms over her chest. Koko sat up behind her and embraced her, holding on when Donoma tried to shrug out of her grasp. "I am not laughing at you, Nutta... I am laughing at me."

Donoma turned and cocked a disbelieving eye in Koko direction. Koko leaned forward and kissed her nose. "Your reasons are well thought out and practical, and I agree with them completely. I just had not realized that I had neglected to show you the storage room."

"The storage room," Donoma repeated with a frown. "Is that not where we placed all the things we removed from the horses?"

Koko shook her head. "No, ka'eskone. That is technically the storage shed." She unwrapped herself from Donoma and stood, then offered her hand to help Donoma stand as well. They took the few steps required to get to the tiny area Koko had built as her kitchen, and she bent and tugged on a groove in the floor Donoma hadn't noticed before. When Koko pulled hard enough, the floor moved and revealed a cellar.

Donoma peered down and then looked back at Koko. "That is very clever, warrior, but is it not terribly inconvenient for you?"

"It could be if I did not have small containers up here that I refilled from the larger ones I keep down there. This is so I do not have to go into town for supplies except once or twice a year."

"Can we go down there?" For answer, Koko lifted the lantern from the wall and took Donoma's hand, leading her down into the cool darkness.

Donoma marveled at the cool, dark space - lined with shelves and containing large casks in the middle. Donoma did have to wonder how Koko had managed to lug them down the stairs safely, then took the time to look around. She found the casks contained dry staples - sugar, flour, salt and cornmeal. Another cask held a brine that Koko explained was salt pork and two smaller casks held hardtack and pickles. The brine made Donoma sneeze and wary of trying either the pork or the pickles.

On the ceiling against one wall hung a variety of smoke cured meats and two walls held a huge assortment of glass jars. Moving closer, Donoma could see that many stood empty, waiting to be filled while the rest held food products of some kind, though she couldn't readily identify them from where she was standing. There were also two large bins that contained some wrinkled potatoes and green-topped onions.

"This is amazing, Koko Kanti. Where did all the bounty come from? How did you manage...?"

"I have learned to do many new things since coming to the white man's world to live, ka'eskone. It was the only way to survive - they do not live as the People do."

Donoma looked around again. "I can see that," she acknowledged, looking around once more before turning to head back up the stairs. Koko followed her, snagging the lamp and closing the trap door when they were both clear. "The People would not know what to do with such bounty or such indulgence," motioning to the bed.

Koko smiled. "I think they would adjust if they had to, ka'eskone, just as I did. But I would not change the old ways; they have served the People well for many generations. I would not want them to be like the white man. Too many white men remind me of my Neho'e's tribe - disregarding the welfare of those they perceive to be weaker or less than they are and abusing the Mother that provides us with life and sustenance."

"Then why do you stay, warrior?"

"Because in some twisted way, ka'eskone, I fit in here and I have a purpose."

"You *had* a purpose with the People, Koko Kanti."

"But until just recently I thought that purpose was lost, Donoma Chepi. And it was good to know I made a difference in the white man's world. The name of Reb Stone is feared throughout the territory by those who would break the law."

Donoma shook her head. "I cannot believe I had never heard that name before."

"That is because the People have stayed off the path of destruction the white man has carved for himself across the west. I fear that that will not always be the case. There is much greed here - they covet our horses and our land... land that we have respected for ages. That greed is behind the attack that was perpetuated against you."

"Will that cause problems for us if we go into town, Koko?"

"No, ka'eskone. I told Stephen I would allow him to handle things for now; I will not go back on my word unless Washburn is stupid enough to try to start something with me. But I imagine Murph will be surprised to see us so soon."

"Probably, given my hesitation this morning, but I think it is best to get it over with. Besides, I am somewhat anxious to meet this 'Miss Kitty' and discover the apparent joys of a hot bath." She yawned widely and tugged on the hand that Koko still held within her grasp. "However, first I would like to sleep on this soft bed."

Koko grinned and drew Donoma down to the bed, seating her and then kneeling in front of her to remove the soft hide boots she wore. Then she stood and began disrobing, nostrils flaring at the look of desire that burned from Donoma's eyes. She had a feeling sleep might be coming for them later rather than sooner tonight.


Reuben Washburn sat at his desk rereading the telegram he had received from his father.

Cast the first Stone. STOP. (it read) Vengeance is ours. STOP. Time for payment. STOP.

Washburn scrubbed a hand over his chin, the buzzing sound a loud rasp in the otherwise quiet room. Telling his father about the death of his younger brother hadn't been pleasant, and from his response, Mordecai Washburn hadn't taken the news well.

Reuben moved his hand to his eyes, trying to rub away the headache he could feel forming behind them. Although he absolutely wanted revenge against Reb Stone for any number of things, he was not ready to make her pay for his brother's death yet. For one thing, he had no way of knowing where she was - the last he had heard was that she was chasing Hobbs' gang and the men that had returned from the first expedition hadn't seen her when they'd stumbled across the big black stallion. Worse, he had no way to collect the horses Leroy had been after... not the black or any of the horses they'd actually been sent to recover. The colonel had put a moratorium on rounding up any more animals until they could determine what had happened to Leroy. He wasn't convinced of Stone's guilt.

The problem was that men who had been part of Leroy's scouting party were unwilling to disobey the colonel's order. It had been different going out under orders and culling the best of the herd for selling before the army got their hands on them. It was something altogether different to directly disobey an order. Most of the men appreciated the security being part of the army gave them. Now Reuben had no other recourse for finding either Stone or the wild horses ranging the prairie than to turn to some of the same outlaws he was supposed to protect the masses from.

Not that that particularly bothered him really, except as it affected his bottom line. Mercenaries and outlaws tended to want a larger cut of the profit than soldiers he could order to do his bidding. However, at this juncture, he really didn't have much other choice - his father would just have to understand... or not, as the case may be... that his profit margin was fixing to drop significantly.

His other problem... finding Stone... that was more a matter of patience on his part. If she was still alive, and he had no reason to believe otherwise at this juncture, he merely needed to wait until she made her next trip into town. Then he could make his move to exact revenge. If she had been killed by Hobbs' gang, word would reach him sooner or later and though not as satisfying as destroying her himself, it would serve its purpose.

The sad thing, Reuben reflected as he sat back in his chair, was that Reb Stone would have been a fabulous ally had she been amenable to his suggestion that she join them, and Leroy would probably still be alive. Of course, Leroy would have had difficulties working with Stone; he made no bones about his hatred for 'the abomination', as he had been wont to refer to her. But Reuben could have kept him in line, even with Leroy's fierce covetousness of the black stallion. They'd have found a way to work around it, even if it had meant threatening Leroy with telling Mordecai.

That would have been effective, Reuben had to admit. He wasn't afraid of much, but his father did tend to scare the shit out of people... even him.

For that reason Reuben wasn't looking forward to relaying the news to his father about the current state of affairs, but better that than having Mordecai deciding he needed to investigate the situation personally. Not only would that go a long way towards exposing their activities, but it was likely to throw everything into chaos. Mordecai just had that effect on things he grew impatient with.

So he got up from his seat and went to the window, letting his mind wander as he tried to decide the best way to respond to his father's telegram. The bell announcing the evening meal rang and he turned back to the water bowl to wash up. Spencer required both officers and men to wash before meals while they were in the fort. Reuben had to grudgingly admit that it did make sense - even he had noticed the men tended to be sick less under this rule.

He wiped his hands on the towel kept beside the bowl for that purpose, then snatched up his hat and headed out the door. He had a little time to consider his answer to his father. Right now, he needed to focus on his duties. There was no reason to draw any more attention to himself at the present. Leroy's death had done more than enough in that regard.

Perhaps that is what he would tell Mordecai - that Leroy's death meant things had to go slowly for just a little while. Even Mordecai would understand the undue attention Reuben was under and not want him to do anything that would draw any more unwarranted scrutiny. That would naturally upset the entire operation, and no one wanted that.

With a sigh, Reuben entered the mess hall. He'd get it all figured out eventually - he just needed eventually to come sooner rather than later.

Then without any further ado, Reuben sat down at the officers' table and waited for the rest of the company to join him.

Chapter XXX

It was an odd noise that drew Donoma from the depths of sleep. She blinked open green eyes, causing the body beneath her to shift and tighten the embrace she was being held in. Donoma blinked again, this time eliciting a chuckle from deep within Koko's chest. Lips brushed over the top of her head.

"It is just the rain, ka'eskone," the low voice burred. "Go back to sleep."

Donoma shifted her head on Koko's shoulder, allowing her to listen to the strange sound of rain falling on wooden shingles. Her hands started drifting in random patterns over Koko's skin and Koko reciprocated by running her hands up and down Donoma's arms.

They basked in their shared warmth and the tingles their touches caused in one another, slipping into a comfortable place where only the two of them existed. Eventually, however, Donoma broke the silence.

"I guess this means we will wait to make our trip into town."

Koko smiled, and though Donoma could not see it, she did hear it in her voice. "I believe you are correct, ka'eskone. Somehow, I cannot garner much enthusiasm for being out in the cold rain when I can stay in this soft, warm bed with you."

"Never let it be said you are not a woman without priorities, warrior mine. Perhaps this is a sign from the Great Spirit that we should slow down and enjoy life together for a bit."

"And perhaps it is simply rain, Donoma, though I will never turn down any opportunity to enjoy life with you. I feel like we have so much time to make up for." A beat. "Do you remember the last time I held you in my arms like this?"

Donoma nodded her head against Koko's torso, her hair tickling the warrior and making her squirm. "Oh yes... it was right before you left. We had gone out to find some silence....


Despite the warmth of the day, the nights tended towards chilly, but made the sky clearer and brighter as the stars emerged from their daylight hiding place. Donoma and Koko had gone out into the vast prairie in the late afternoon, determined to find a bit of peace. The tribe had been celebrating some victory or other, but all Koko wanted was to bask in Donoma's presence in the quiet of a wide open sky.

When they were far enough away, Koko flopped down onto the ground and tucked her hands under her head. Donoma laid her head on Koko's belly and together they stared up the cloud filled sky searching for patterns in them. This was almost as fun as star chasing and Koko planned to stay out long enough to do that activity as well.

The sun went down, creating beautiful, colorful patterns on the western horizon even as the eastern sky darkened with night. Slowly, the stars began to peek and pop out and Donoma shifted her position to curl up in the warmth of Koko's strong arms.

"How is it you always manage to be so warm, Koko?" she asked shivering. "It is not even remotely warm out here now and yet you are toasty almost to the point of being hot."

"It must be the company I keep, ka'eskone. The Great Spirit has determined my sole purpose in life is to keep you warm - therein lies my skill as your protector. Hey!" jumping when Donoma poked her in the ribs. "What did you do that for?"

Donoma rolled her eyes and smirked. "Like you do not know, Koko Kanti. This particular skill may be exclusively for me, but it is certainly not the only one you possess. Ask any of the warriors who have sat under your tutelage or whom you have led into battle. I am fairly confident they would be happy to inform you of any other number of skills of which you are in possession of."

"Yes, but what are the skills of war worth when you so obviously do not require them as you do the warmth which I regularly supply you with? I believe the Great Spirit is showing me a new path," laughing this time when Donoma poked her.

"I believe you need to turn your attention to the stars, warrior and see if perhaps there is a message there. Although," Donoma continued with a smirk, "after the cloud chasing we did this afternoon, I fear for your eyesight. You have interesting vision."

Koko poked out her lip so far, Donoma had to bite her own to keep from laughing out loud. Honestly... any farther and it would get stepped on. "You do not like what I see in the clouds?"

"I do not *see* what you see in the clouds, warrior, anymore than I see what you see in the stars." Donoma leaned up on her elbows and brushed the unruly hair back out of Koko's eyes. Then she cupped her face in one hand and rubbed against Koko's bottom lip until it retreated and feeling Koko shudder against her. "That is why I find them interesting."

Koko looked at her disbelievingly at the glib explanation, but Donoma's expression showed only sincerity. She tightened her hold on Donoma's body, forcing her to lie down once more, then she kissed the blonde head that tucked itself under her chin. Donoma angled herself so she could hear Koko's heartbeat beneath her ear, never realizing when the strong steady beat lulled her into sleep.


"That was only a few days before you left," Donoma said softly. "I remember the feeling of completion and warmth and protectiveness that I felt that night - it is still one of my favorite memories." She paused. "I look back now and wonder how I could have missed what was so clear in your eyes and expression... what was so obvious in my own heart and mind despite my blindness to it. You never let anyone take liberties with you the way I did."

Despite Donoma's serious demeanor, Koko Kanti chuckled, causing Donoma to lean up until she could meet twinkling blue eyes. Koko struggled to bring her mirth under control and looked at Donoma seriously, though she couldn't quite hide the mischief that lurked in the back of her gaze. Donoma arched an eyebrow in question and Koko nearly lost it again; only superior warrior stoicism allowed her to keep a straight face.

"Ka'eskone... no one but you would *dare* take liberties with me, especially of that sort. They all like living too much. You, however, are the exception to that rule. With you, they are not liberties - it is your place... where you belong; therefore, they are simply your due."

Donoma didn't answer verbally - Koko had robbed her of thought, of speech, or her very breath. Instead, she leaned down and brushed Koko's lips, barely touching and causing Koko to follow her as she pulled away, seeking a deeper touch.

Donoma pulled back, teasing Koko, confident she would pursue. Not only did Koko pursue, but Donoma suddenly found herself at the bottom of a very warm, wonderful pile of focused warrior passion. It was a while before thought or speech or breathing were part of her processes again.


"I did not tell the truth," Donoma said some time later. "*That* is the most peaceful way to start the day," stretching luxuriously against all the bare skin she was tucked into and giving Koko a satisfied smile. She shifted until she was turned on her side, tracing the smooth skin beneath her fingers with the gentlest of touches, edging carefully around still tender skin. "I could stay here with you...."

A rumbling between them short-circuited Donoma's words and caused a chuckle to ripple through both of them. They caught each other's eyes and Donoma slid from her place at Koko's side, allowing Koko to get up with her. They slipped into the bare minimum of clothing they could manage to ward off the chill, and Koko made her way to the small stove to light it while Donoma started gathering supplies to put together a meal for them.

She decided she really liked the cellar pantry, despite the chilly darkness. She wondered if Koko would teach her how to keep things in the empty glass jars once the garden was producing. Donoma thought planting in the white man's world would have to be similar to what the People did - the only difference being that the People left it to grow on its own while they followed the herd and the white man tended to remain in one place to care for it.

The stove was lit and Koko was doing the same to the fireplace when Donoma emerged from the cellar. She shivered and moved closer to the stove, greedily glad for the warmth it provided. After a moment, she felt the warmth of Koko's body against her and sighed in contentment.

"It is funny," she commented as she relished their closeness. "If I was outdoors with the People in this weather, I would not notice the cold dampness unless the fire was put out."

"That is one reason you felt it so much," Koko agreed. "Neither fire was lit and I have noticed the larger the space, the cooler the air when it is wet like this, no matter the thickness of the walls." She leered in Donoma's direction. "That is one reason it was so difficult to get out of bed this morning."

"Will it always be like this for us, do you suppose?"

Koko shook her head thoughtfully after a few minutes of silent consideration. "No, ka'eskone... I do not think it will. Our relationship has been evolving since we first met. It was always becoming more, better, different. I can see no reason why that would change now."

Donoma turned to face Koko. "I think I like that, warrior. Now, let me prepare us something to eat, then you and I need to do our exercises together."

Koko patted Donoma on the bottom and snatched up the pail closest to the door. This was going to be a whole new experience... for both of them.


Their meal was incredibly successful, especially when one stopped to consider that never before had Donoma attempted to cook on a stove or the enclosed fire that came with it. Koko was thrilled, comforted in a way she never expected to be in this place. Donoma was a little more frustrated, but knew that with time she could find the best way to make flatbread in that confounded stove.

At the moment, however, the two women were engaged in the defensive routine Koko had taught Donoma when she was seven. Koko was a little rusty, having very little opportunity to indulge in this sort of practice and being predisposed to reaching for her guns at this point in her life. They had saved her life many times in the five years she had been away from the People, and she didn't regret her efficiency with them. But she had missed this more than she'd allowed herself to realize... especially with Donoma.

Koko stood back at first, watching the beauty of the dance as Donoma made her way through the movements Koko had so painstakingly taught her years before. After the first circuit, Donoma stood back as well, pinning Koko in place with her gaze.

"Are you going to simply watch me, warrior, or do you plan to participate in this little exercise at some point?"

"I was enjoying the image in front of me, if you must know," Koko replied drolly.

"Uh huh... and it has nothing to do with the fact that you haven't done this in years."

A dark brow spiked into an equally dark hairline. "Are you saying I no longer remember how to defend myself against a lightweight like you? You think the ingrained habits of a lifetime simply disappear if they are not utilized properly every day?"

"I seem to recall getting a similar lecture many times during my training, warrior... something along the lines of needing to train every day to keep from losing my skills. Are you telling me that it is not true now?" stalking closer to Koko. Blue eyes widened comically - Donoma had never been so aggressive and there was something surprisingly appealing about it. Then Donoma was completely in Koko's space and poking a finger into her chest. "Tell me, Koko - were you lying to me then?"

"No, of course not, ka'eskone," holding up her hands in surrender.

Donoma grinned. "Defend yourself then, warrior," and she moved swiftly into a defensive position. Koko blinked then grinned ferally.

"Prepare yourself, ka'eskone. I may not have done this in years, but it is still a very real part of who I was... and who I am."

"Put your arrows where your bows are, warrior." Then there were no more words as they started the dance between them once more.

When they were done, Koko was smiling broadly. "You have done well, ka'eskone. You have far surpassed the skill you had achieved training with me. Did you practice with your hestatanemos while I was gone?"

Donoma shook her head. "No, Koko Kanti. When you left, I continued to work on my own. I could not allow anyone to take part in this... or anything else we shared. At first I was too hurt and then I was too angry. Honaw kept watch - there was never a day I was without protection. But he watched from a distance; it was all I would allow."

Koko nodded. She was well acquainted with Donoma's stubborn streak. She bit her lip pensively and took a deep breath. "Did you... did you ever consider leaving the People - coming to find me?"

Donoma stared into blue eyes for a long moment. "Not as a realistic path that I could follow, no. You must remember, Koko, that at first I believed you were only going to be gone for a few days and at that point, Neho'e would not have allowed me to go regardless of the circumstances. By the time I was old enough to choose the path best suited to me, I was too angry to look for you."

She paused a moment and straightened, crossing over to the half filled pail and scooped out a bit of still cool water. She swallowed carefully then met Koko's eyes again. "In some ways I wish I had; in others, I am glad I did not."

Koko cocked her head. "How do you mean, ka'eskone?" Her voice and expression were neither accusing nor judgmental - there was more curiosity than anything else.

"I wish I had in that we would not have lost so much time between us. I am glad I did not as I am not confident things would have worked out so well if I had forced the issue then. You would have been angry as well."

"That is very true, Donoma. I would have been defensive... moreso than I have been now."

"It would be nice, though, if the Great Spirit would be a little more exact when he shares visions," Donoma added ruefully. "It would make things a little less complicated and perhaps somewhat easier to figure out the interpretation of them."

Koko laughed heartily at Donoma's pronouncement. "Oh beloved," she gasped in English. "I do not think the Great Spirit or the gods of the white man have any desire or intention to make things less complicated for the creatures that call themselves human beings. There is no entertainment for them in making life less difficult for us."

"You believe that is why we are here, Koko Kanti? To entertain those who watch over us and provide for us?"

Koko took Donoma's hand and led her to the small sitting area in front of the fireplace. "I believe," she said as they settled together comfortably in a corner of the tiny couch, "that the Great Spirit offers guidance to those that seek it and that our Mother Earth provides for us as long as we do our part in providing for ourselves." She shrugged and shook her head. "I cannot say about the gods of the white man; there appear to be many."

"Do they not believe in the Great Spirit and Mother Earth then?"

"Not that I have been able to discover," Koko replied. "There is a man in town known as Reverend Hawkins - he is considered the shaman of the One God. Nice enough man, although some of his beliefs... well, it is no wonder there are so many other gods they look to... for whatever reason."

"Such as?" Donoma asked, cocking her head to one side.

Koko shrugged. "Hard to know for sure - for some it is money or drink or the pleasure of women as they can afford them. For others it is what they can claim... what they can own for themselves. Then there are a few who believe in only themselves or do not believe in anything at all - they are the ones struggling to get by." She shook her dark head. "I still do not understand much of their ideas."

Donoma blinked slowly as she pondered Koko's words. "I can understand your difficulty, warrior. I cannot comprehend that way of thinking."

"Good," Koko stated firmly. "I never want you to become like the white man is, Donoma. So many of them are cold and careless and unfeeling. I love your warmth and caring and passion - even when the passion is anger. I hope you never learn to understand."

Donoma curled into Koko's arms and laid her head on her shoulder. She smiled when Koko tightened her embrace and leaned her cheek against her blonde head. The next little while passed peacefully - until Koko determined it was her turn to cook for Donoma.

It was a most interesting afternoon.


The next few days passed in very similar fashion. The rain continued - sometimes heavy... sometimes barely misting. But Donoma and Koko fell into a comfortable routine, appreciating their time alone together in a different way than they had out on the prairie. Donoma didn't take time to analyze it - it was enough to simply enjoy.

Donoma was thrilled to find that Koko had added to her mother's somewhat meager collection of books and they spent evenings snuggled together reading new material and savoring old.

When the rain stopped, the ground was more than saturated and Donoma realized it would be even longer before they were able to take that trip into town. She found that didn't bother her - despite her enthusiasm for it before, she'd realized that it would happen in good time and for the time being, she was more than content with transitioning into the white man's world with only Koko for company.

With the return of the sun, Koko decided it was time to air out and clean the cabin and Donoma agreed with her. Soon they were cleaning floors and walls and clothes and bedding, opening the windows and doors to allow the air to filter through.

It was slow going, but they took pleasure in doing the task together and they took their time - enjoying the fresh air and sunshine. Finally, though, their home was sparklingly clean and fresh as were they and their clothing.

That evening, almost two weeks since they had run into Stephen Murphy, they curled up together again in the middle of their large, fresh bed. Too tired to do anything more than cuddle, they were almost asleep when Koko mumbled softly, "Do you want to try to go into town in the morning?"

Donoma nodded her head, and they settled down to sleep. Tomorrow would come soon enough.

Chapter XXXI

Reuben Washburn was frustrated - deeply, seriously frustrated. His father Mordecai hadn't been particularly thrilled about his reasons for stalling their operations temporarily, but he did understand Reuben's reasoning - he even agreed with it. It didn't make him happy, though, especially having to agree to stay out of things and allow Reuben to handle things... for a while.

His take on Reb Stone, however, was unshakeable. "Take care of it," was all he'd said, but Reuben knew damned good and well exactly what that meant. The problem was, he couldn't - at least not at the moment and not in his present location. Stone had still not returned to town though Washburn knew she had survived the attack by Hobbs' gang.

Worse - Reuben had no way to leave without losing the Army position he needed and there was no way he would be able to force the issue within the town limits. Despite the many folks who found Reb Stone to be peculiar, most of them had benefited from her talents if not her generosity at one time or another and none had a bad word to say against her.

Still, he'd heard rumors - nothing solid... no way to confirm anything... not even a way to verify the source - but if they were anything close to the truth, he should be able to turn public opinion against her. This town might not be a God-fearing bastion, but it didn't take perversion lightly either.

He could only hope to get that lucky. Mordecai was not going to wait very long before he stepped in and took care of things his own way. And then all hell would break loose.


Marshal Stephen Murphy had a standing date with Miss Kitty on Wednesday afternoons. Sometimes they shared a meal and talked and other times, they shared themselves. No matter how they chose to spend their time together, Wednesday afternoons between two and five were sacrosanct - respected by all and sundry - and only the most horrible circumstances would cause one or the other of them to miss that appointment or anyone else to interrupt.

On the other hand, they didn't see one another much outside of that timeframe either, unless it was official business of the kind Murphy dealt with in his line of work. So it nearly shocked the whole town speechless when Kitty put on her nice clothes and sauntered down to the Marshal's office on a Friday afternoon.

Murphy's eyes nearly bugged out of his head when Kitty crossed the threshold. He rose from his seat automatically and motioned her to a chair. He waited until she was seated, then resumed his own place behind the desk.

"Well, Miss Kitty, this is an unexpectedly pleasant surprise. What, um... what can I do for you?"

"You can put my mind at rest, Marshal." She crossed her legs and cleared her throat. "I am hearing some rumors and I'm not sure what to make of them."

"What are you hearing, Kitty?" he asked glowering in her direction. "It's gotta be bad if you came out in the middle of the day to see me."

Kitty bit her lip, careful not to remove the color she had delicately painted on. "I'm not sure it's bad yet, Stephen, but it is somewhat disturbing."

"Kitty, what is it?" he asked again with more than a hint of exasperation.

"Well, rumor has it that Reb Stone is a horse thief - that she killed Leroy Washburn to keep from being discovered. But no one believes that - even the naysayers who would love to have something they could lord over her. She's done too much good for folks around here for that idea to stick... though a lot of folks are wondering why she would even be accused of such a thing. I have to tell you, Stephen, I never have liked those Washburn boys. Always a little too slick, if you know what I mean." He nodded but didn't comment, and she continued speaking. "The rest... if it's true I'm afraid it may be enough to turn the people here against her - hypocrites that they are."

He cocked an eyebrow and folded his hands on his desktop. "What, Kitty?" having a sinking feeling he knew exactly where this conversation was headed.

She cleared her throat again, feeling awkward. "Well," she drawled slowly, "I've heard that she's taken a wife... an Injun wife."

Murphy closed his eyes. He was going to have to kill Spencer - that was all there was to it. The man obviously had no sense, spreading stories like that. And if Stone ever got wind of it....

He sighed. "Between you and me, Kitty," he said with a direct stare. Kitty nodded, understanding and accepting his condition of silence. He had shared many things with her over the years, and she had become his most treasured confidante. With her hard-earned business knowledge and the things Murphy had shared, Kitty Caldwell knew enough secrets to bring down the whole town and a good percentage of the Army.

"Always, Stephen... you know that."

"All right," he agreed, sighing again. "Stone does have a bride and she is an Injun... though not like any Injun I've ever seen before." Kitty cocked her head and motioned for him to continue. "She's a bitty thing, Kitty... tiny like a bird, but not weak. Her hair is a red-gold color... not dark like you'd expect, and her eyes are as green as new spring grass. And she's as full of piss and vinegar as Stone is."

"And you say she and Stone are married?"

"No... THEY say they're married and I'm not gonna argue with 'em."

"You sure that's wise, Stephen? That sort of thing can turn ugly real quick. You know how judgmental some of the people in this town can be... especially about something like this. The only reason I'm not completely shunned is because I've got dirt on everyone and I'm willing to use it."

Murphy shook his head. "Nothing to be done for it, Kitty, 'less they don't come into town. And I don't see that as being a real option. Say whatever you like, them two women fit together. I've never seen anyone as fierce as that little one that belongs to Stone. She liked to have lit my hair on fire with a look when I intimated that they couldn't be married to each other."

"Worse than Stone Cold?"

He snorted. "Stone's look is like ice - she was all fire."

Kitty grinned despite the seriousness of the conversation. "Sounds like they're perfect for each other."

"Pretty much," Murphy agreed. "Question is... aside from me killing the teller of this particular tale, is there anything we can be doin' to make things easier for them when they come into town? Stone promised to give me a little while to see what I could dig up on the accusations Washburn was throwing her way, although that died down pretty quickly from that corner, come to think of it. And although I know her Missus wasn't too anxious to visit, still, you know that Stone at least will be here eventually - whether it is for supplies or looking for more bounties to chase."

"And you're sure about this... about them, I mean?"

"As sure as I've ever been about anything, Kitty. My first reaction was a lot like yours, but you didn't see them together. They belong."

Kitty chewed on the end of her finger thoughtfully. "All righty, then... maybe we should speak to the reverend first. He will ultimately be the one with the power to swing the minds of the old biddies in this town one way or the other."

"Can you convince him...?"

Kitty rose and Murphy stood as well. She extended her hand and he took it as a matter of course. She squeezed and waited for him to come around the desk, then she leaned forward and brushed his rough cheek with her painted lips, barely leaving a mark. "Leave it to me, Stephen. It may take a little while, but I think I can convince him to see things my way."

"Thanks, Kitty."

She shrugged. "Reb Stone is my friend - I don't have many of those in this town. And she's always looked out for me and the girls whenever she could. It's kinda nice to be able to pay some of that back."

"As I recall," he said as he walked her to the door, "you were a good Samaritan to her when she first came to town as well."

"Yeah, well... that was a long time ago and she's racked up a lot of points with me and the girls since then."

"Ya know, Kitty, if things were a little different...."

She cupped his cheek in her palm and brushed a thumb over his lips. "I know, but they're not. Let's just be thankful for what we've got," leaning up and brushing his lips with hers briefly before pulling away and opening the door. "I'll be in touch."

"You do that," he instructed. He watched her head back down towards the saloon and brothel. He noted all the eyes that followed her progress, seeing the speculation and interest in the 'respectable' women of the town. Then spotting Miss Molly Gillingham, Murphy decided to take a little stroll out towards the fort. With a little luck, he could resolve things with Spencer without having to actually kill the colonel for his indiscretion.


"Come in," Spencer called out as Murphy knocked on the open door. The two men hadn't spoken since their discussion about Reb Stone and Donoma. Part of that was due to the tacit agreement they'd made not to argue about Stone and Donoma; the other was a desire to give each other a little bit of space to cool down in.

But at the moment, Stephen Murphy was not worried about either of those things or the fact that he was risking years of friendship and good relations with the Army. At the moment, he had one single thought and that was to discover why Spencer had taken it upon himself to spread rumors about Stone and her mate. Despite the evidence that it was truth and not rumors, in Murphy's mind it didn't excuse the fact that Spencer had spoken out of turn.

So he stepped into Spencer's office and closed the door behind him.

The colonel raised an eyebrow at the set fury in Murphy's face, but motioned him to a seat. The marshal took a chair and leaned back, staring at Spencer for a long moment before opening his mouth to speak.

"Why'd you do it, Spence? Why couldn't you just let things play out if and when Stone and her woman came into town?"

John Spencer jerked up from his place behind the desk and leaned over with his palms flat on the top. "I don't know what you're talking about, Murphy, but I don't like what you're implying."

Stephen Murphy stood opposite him and leaned against the other side of the desk until they were only inches apart. "I'm not implying, Spence. Are you gonna stand there and tell me that you didn't tell anyone about Stone and her wife? 'Cause rumors are flying all over the whole damn town, and I know I didn't say a word to anyone!"

Spencer fell back into his chair with a graceless flop and gaped at Murphy. For his part, Murphy maintained his gaze, watching realization dawn on Spencer's face. Only when the colonel's mouth started working like a fish's, opening and closing with no sound coming out, did the marshal take a seat and wait for him to recover his wits.

Finally, Spencer leaned forward and covered his face with his hands. Then he blew out a breath and dropped his hands, meeting Stephen's gaze squarely.

"It is my fault, Murph, but there was nothing malicious or hateful behind it. I just did what you suggested."

"Huh?" not brilliant, but the best Murphy could come up with under the circumstances.

"You told me to have Miss Molly talk to Stone's bride... you know, if she thought being an Army wife was so bad." Murphy nodded but didn't speak and the colonel continued. "See, it's like this... Miss Molly and I stepped out together last night. And we talked about marriage and how good I thought we could be together... you know, as husband and wife. And she told me that being an Army wife scared her, so I did what you suggested and mentioned that Stone had a wife she should talk to if she thought being an Army wife was scary. Had to be worse married to a bounty hunter, right?"

"You didn't," flatter than a pancake.

"I did," Spence retorted. "I didn't even think about the consequences. Frankly I never thought Miss Molly was the malicious type. I never expected her to be telling tales out of school." He shrugged. "It just goes to show you can never really tell about people. She's really not Army wife material if she isn't more discriminating on what news she shares and with whom."

Murphy kept his mouth shut. He'd learned from experience that women were women regardless, and just like most men he knew, if there was a juicy tidbit of gossip to share, they were damn sure going to share it with anyone and everyone who would listen.

Spencer sighed. "Not much to be done for it now, I suppose. I kind of hate that - Stone is good people. I hate to lose her friendship over something like this."

"Why do you have to?" At the colonel's cocked brow, he continued. "Why do you have to lose her friendship? Why not stand up and show folks that nothing has changed as far as you're concerned?"

"Excuse me? Murph... what do you mean, nothing has changed? Everything has changed!"

"Has it? Or is something that has always been private suddenly been made public?" The question stopped John Spencer in his tracks and he turned his gaze inward and gave it the deliberation it was due. Eventually, he looked back at Stephen Murphy who was waiting patiently for him to draw his own conclusions.

"Son of a bitch." Murphy's eyebrows went up, but he remained silent. "Son of a bitch," Spencer repeated. "You're right. Fact is, I never knew that much about Stone in the first place... at least not her private life. I never saw her with anyone, not even the girls at the saloon, except when she was having dinner with them. And I think she did that mostly to keep the more rowdy type men in line. All I really know of her is what I know dealing with her as a bounty hunter, and I can't fault the type of business woman she is. She's always been fair, forthright and honest in her dealings."

"And she always gets her man."

"Lucky for us."


"So I guess I will be out to greet her when she or they come into town. Don't know as I can do much more than that, but I'm not going to let the best bounty hunter in the territory disappear because I don't agree with her mating choice."

"Just you remember that her mate is a fierce woman in her own right, Spence. Woman nearly singed me bald with a look when I told her they couldn't be married."

Spencer chuckled. "That would have been quite the sight to see."

Murphy snorted. "Only 'cause you are the one what would have been bald."

The colonel raked a hand through his still thick hair. "I don't think I would be as appealing to Miss Molly as a bald man, at any rate." A troubled look crossed his face and Murphy stepped out of character for a moment and did something unusual for him.

"Whatcha gonna do about her, John?"

John shook his head. "I don't rightly know," he replied honestly. "I really do like her, Stephen, you know? I think she would make a good wife - she is obviously sturdy stock if she has survived out here; she comes from good people; she has nice manners and I think she would bear strong children."


"But can I marry someone who can't hold her tongue... or at least know when to speak and when to be silent? Do I really want to? I care for her very much; I just... I need to decide if I can live without her or not, and if not, how willing am I to teach her to be a proper Army wife?"

"Wouldn't the other wives help her adjust? I thought that was what women did... you know, sorta stick together."

Spencer laughed and rose from his seat, coming around the desk to clap Murphy on the shoulder. "That kind of thinking is probably why you and I are confirmed old bachelors at this point in our lives, Stephen. I have found that sometimes women come together in camaraderie and join forces against a common enemy and sometimes they will ostracize one another because they can. I long ago stopped trying to make sense of either their thinking processes or their machinations. It made my head hurt too much. I do know that *if* I ever decided to marry, my wife would be expected to be a leader among the wives and women here as much as I am a leader among the men. That is the way of the Army. And I am not sure Miss Molly is up to that challenge."

"Well, I'm sure you'll figure it out. Meantime, I need to talk to Kitty... see what the good reverend has to say about it all. If he's on our side, I figure the old biddies will fall in line." He noticed Spencer's speculative look. "She's the one who came to me with the rumors, Spence."

"Figures," the colonel grunted. "If there is news in this town, real or imagined, Miss Kitty is going to be the first one to hear about it. That woman is better than a newspaper or a town crier for news, and she's discrete. Of course, in her line of work...." not saying any more to keep from offending Murphy. He knew how the marshal felt about Kitty.

Murphy offered him a slightly pained smile. "Maybe she should be the one to teach Miss Molly about discretion."

John laughed. "I'd almost pay to see that."

Stephen's laughter joined in. "So would I, actually." The two men shook hands and Spencer opened the door for Murphy to leave. "Come around for dinner tomorrow, and I'll let you know what Hawkins had to say. Maybe we can head things off at the pass."

"I'll be there." Then the two men went back to work, wondering what the morrow would bring.

Chapter XXXII

Miss Kitty moseyed back to the saloon. She knew talking to Reverend Hawkins was going to require a little finesse. Still, he was a man and not without secrets, though if she could manage it, she'd prefer not to have to threaten him with exposure. He was much better as a willing ally than an antagonistic one and Kitty was determined to bring him around to her way of thinking. First, though, she needed sustenance. Then she could strategize her battle plan.

She walked in the door and greeted Benny the bartender with a wave. He nodded his head and signaled one of the other girls to fetch Kitty a plate. For her part, Kitty headed upstairs to remove her 'going out' clothes. Even if she had to put them on again later to talk to the reverend, it was better than wrinkling them or staining them in the meantime.

Kitty unbuttoned her shoes, kicking them off with an almost decadent sense of liberation. Then she reached behind her to start unbuttoning her dress, only to be stopped by the knock on the door. With a sigh of relief, she opened the door and ushered Ginger into the room, taking the tray from her hands and turning her back.

Ginger understood the unspoken directive, unhooking buttons quickly and patting Kitty's back when she was finished. Kitty turned and brushed their lips together lightly, then slipped out of her dress and into her comfortable robe.

"God, that's much better," she said, stretching comfortably before moving over to the tray she'd set down on her bed. "Thanks, by the way... I'm starving."

Ginger smiled. "Thank Benny. He's the one who let us know you were ready for it."

"Good man... remind me to thank him later." She looked up at Ginger. "How'd you get drafted to bring it upstairs?"

Ginger's smile became a grin. "I volunteered."

Kitty smirked. "Of course you did."

Ginger was good, letting Kitty satisfy the first pangs of hunger before she started talking. "So what's the word?" Kitty met her gaze blankly. "C'mon, Kitty - you went down to talk to the Marshal as soon I told you about the rumors goin' around town. Are you gonna sit there and pretend that didn't have anything to do with your impromptu visit to see Stephen Murphy?"

"I can't, Ginger. I promised Stephen to keep his counsel on this. But I can tell you he was mightily displeased to hear about these rumors floatin' about."

"I'd say that was the truth for the majority of the town from the sound of things no matter which side of the fence you fall on. Do you realize Reb's supposed marriage to an Injun woman has pushed the talk of her being a horse thief right off the map? Not that anyone here believed that foolishness - even the old biddies knew better than to say a word against her in that regard." She turned and leaned up against the door. Kitty arched an eyebrow at her.

"Have you heard anything else?"

"Nothing I didn't already tell ya; the telling seems to get worse with each round it makes though. 'Fore ya know it, Reb's gonna have a harem and fangs." The two women snorted and Kitty almost choked on her laughter.

"Thanks for that imagery, Ging," Kitty said wryly when she could speak again. "I'm gonna be hard-pressed to keep a straight face next time I see Reb and God knows I can't afford to be seen laughin' at her. Folks'll take that all wrong."

"Well, people do seem to be fallin' into two distinct camps from what I've been able to figure out already. Most of the shopkeepers, the single men, the cowboys and the like don't give a rat's ass. They figure it's none of their business. The old biddies though...."

"So it's a case of men on one side, women on the other."

"Pretty much, except for the reverend who is sticking with the old women and us, who come down firmly with the men."

Kitty chortled. "Don't we always?" Ginger howled with laughter and it was a few minutes before either of them could speak sensibly again. "Now," Kitty said, popping the last bite of cornbread into her mouth and brushing the crumbs from her hands, "I need to figure out the best way to get the good reverend to see things our way... preferably without using blackmail."


"Why what?"

"Why preferably without blackmail? Damn, Kitty - what's the point of *knowing* all the secrets if you never *use* them?"

"I'd prefer to have him on our side as an ally, Ginger. No one wants a war over this. There's a lot hidden behind the walls and doors of this town. That kind of stuff starts spilling out, there's liable to be an explosion of massive proportion."

"You think it could come to that?"

"I think Washburn will use any opportunity he can to stir shit against Reb." She sighed. "I still don't understand why they didn't cotton to her at all. She's doing the Army a huge favor being such a successful bounty hunter - lessens their responsibilities in the territory by the wagonload. Why'd the Washburn boys have such a stick up their ass where she is concerned? As far as I could tell, she stayed well away from them, didn't she?"

Ginger nodded slowly. "Yeah, though that might've been the problem. She's a woman working in a man's world, meeting a man's terms and to top it all off, she shunned them as men. Now in fairness, she did that with all the men that wanted her as a woman." She shrugged. "Maybe that bothered them the most." She took a seat next to Kitty. "I dunno, Kit... the whole thing just gives me a really bad feeling."

"Yeah, me too," Kitty agreed. "Nothing good can come from this." She rubbed her forehead, careful not to smudge the makeup she had so painstakingly applied earlier. "It's already giving me a headache."

Ginger rose from her place beside Kitty and removed the tray from the bed before returning and propping her body against the pillows at the headboard. Then she patted the space between her scissored legs, motioning for Kitty to sit between them with her back to Ginger's chest. Then Kitty's chin dropped to her chest as Ginger began a firm kneading on the knots in her neck.

"Christ Ginger, you have magic hands."

"And a magic tongue depending on who you ask," Ginger replied saucily, causing Kitty to jerk with laughter. She kept up the pressure, forcing the knots to loosen under her touch one by one.

"God that feels so good, but you're putting me to sleep."

"Go with it, Kitty - you need the rest if you're going to be ready for Mason and his boys tonight. This stress isn't good for ya, you know." Kitty snorted, but she didn't speak. Ginger slipped from her spot behind Kitty, then encouraged her to cuddle down into the soft bed. "G'wan, me and the girls will handle any business that comes in for a while. I'll come gitcha before Mason gets here."

Kitty might have answered except for the soft snoring that issued from between her lips. Ginger pulled the blanket up to her waist, then snagged the tray and tiptoed from the room.


Saturday morning, Kitty got up early - a huge sacrifice given the lateness of the hour she'd been up working the night before. She smiled, then grimaced. She appreciated the business, but God, she was beat. It was nothing another few hours of sleep wouldn't cure, but she needed to talk to Reverend Hawkins first and unfortunately, that meant early morning hours. On Saturdays, Mrs. Hawkins held a prayer meeting with the respectable Christian women of the town while the good reverend went to the schoolhouse to convert it into a church meetinghouse. Then he would rehearse his sermon until the women were out of his house.

So muttering under her breath at the things she did for friendship, Kitty struggled out of bed. She scrubbed her face and carefully reapplied her make-up, then slid into her going out clothes for the second day in a row.

It was dark and quiet downstairs - no one would be stirring in the saloon until close to lunch time. With any luck, Kitty would conclude her business with the good reverend quickly enough to take advantage of the relative silence for a few more hours of peace.

The shops were opened; most of the storekeepers gave her a nod of greeting though not much more. Kitty didn't mind - she more than most understood the importance of appearances. She got their money and attention sooner or later if not their public respect.

When she reached the far end of the street, she crossed and mounted the steps slowly.

"And the Lord said, 'I shall smite...' Miss Kitty?"

Kitty's lips twisted wryly at the irony of the words that welcomed her appearance into the church. Daniel Hawkins kept the smile from his lips but didn't contain the twinkle in his eyes. She offered her hand and he accepted it, squeezing briefly before releasing it. Then he motioned her to a bench and took a seat across the aisle.

"What brings you to see me, Kitty?"

"I think you can probably guess, Daniel."

He sighed and rubbed a hand across his eyes. "Kitty...."

"Daniel, are you gonna sit there and tell me you agree with the old biddies of this town? That Reb Stone needs to be shunned because of who she chooses to spend her time with? The same Reb Stone that has done more than her share to help keep this a decent place to live?"

"The Bible says...."

"The Bible says 'judge not that ye be not judged'; 'let he who is without sin cast the first stone'." She laughed aloud at his flabbergasted expression. "C'mon, Daniel. I haven't always been a whore. I spent a goodly portion of my Sundays growing up listening to a hellfire and brimstone preacher. I'm not interested in what you think the Bible says. I'm interested in what you, Daniel Hawkins, say. And before you answer that," she said holding up a hand when he drew breath to speak, "I mean you the man... not the preacher and not the husband."

He sighed again, this time scrubbing both hands over his face, then allowing them to rest on his lips while he contemplated her in silence. "If it was left up to me, I'd tell them to stay well away from this town, Kitty. Different don't do well here - you know that. Look at how long it took Stone to make a place for herself as a woman bounty hunter. Now for her to bring in an Injun woman - that's bad enough, but to call her mate??"

"Daniel, I'm not asking for an explanation. I'm asking what side you come down on."

"As a man, I don't rightly care. Reb Stone has been a contributing member of this town and I value that. But as a preacher, I have to condemn her actions. She flaunts her differences and that's just not right. It goes against the Good Book."

Kitty sneered. "It goes against Eunice's desire for a polite society in this town, Daniel... just like I do. Imagine if she knew the truth about you."

His face flushed red and his eyes popped from their sockets. She held up her hands.

"Breathe, Daniel. I'm not going to tell her - at least not now. But imagine if she did know. The only real difference is Reb's not hiding her secret." Kitty rose and smoothed out her skirt. "Maybe one day you'll be able to be that man you always wanted to."

Without another word, Kitty turned and headed back out towards the saloon. With a little luck, she'd be able to get back to bed with no more interruptions in her sleep.


Koko lay still, her eyes focused on the warm body of her mate. Donoma was curled up into the warrior's body, holding on so tightly she wondered what haunted the seer's dreams. For her part, Koko trailed her hands up and down Donoma's bare skin, anywhere she could reach - arms, back, belly. Slowly, her touch roused Donoma towards wakefulness and Koko smiled as Donoma mewed her protest at being awakened, no matter how gently.

Koko rolled them so Donoma was tucked beneath her and her eyes were focused on Donoma's, wanting to see green eyes. It took a few minutes, but eventually her patience was rewarded and sleepy green eyes slowly blinked open. Donoma smiled up into the blue eyes full of love gazing back at her, then laced her hands into the dark hair, tugging until Koko's lips were a mere whisper away from her own.

"Good morning," she said softly.

"Good morning, ka'eskone," dropping her head and capturing the full lips beneath her for a timeless moment. "How did you sleep?" she asked when they separated.

Donoma grinned and rubbed Koko's nose with hers. "I was in your arms, warrior; my sleep is always good there." Koko traced the planes of Donoma's face with her fingertips, studying the depths of her eyes for any suggestion of what had caused her to hold on so fiercely in her sleep. Not finding anything, she kissed Donoma's nose and pulled back slightly.

"As is mine, ka'eskone." She rolled onto her back, smiling when Donoma followed and tucked her head under Koko's chin. They lay that way for a few minutes, then Koko tilted her head enough to kiss the blonde head. "Do you still want to try to go into town today, Donoma? I think it may be dry enough for us to make it in without too much difficulty."

"I go where you go, warrior."

Koko shifted. "Have you decided otherwise, beloved? We do not need to go if you are not ready."

"I think we need to get this behind us, warrior mine. It is not going to get easier by waiting."

Koko nodded her head. That much was the truth. She knew that as well as anyone and better than most - had it not been for necessity, she herself would never have ventured into town the second time. She was not particularly looking forward to introducing Donoma to the white man's world, remembering her own experiences, but until her business with Stephen and the Army was complete, there was no way she was going to leave Donoma alone. Something about the very idea sent squiggles traveling up and down her spine in painful patterns.

"Very well," Koko agreed. She squeezed Donoma once more, then released her hold. "We should get started. It will take most of the morning to get there."

"Do we have time for breakfast?" Donoma asked as her belly growled. Koko chuckled.

"Absolutely, ka'eskone. Never let it be said I let you starve."

"You nearly did once - do you remember?" Donoma asked seriously, though the twinkle in her eyes belied the gravity of her tone.

"I never...!" Koko replied aghast.

"Oh, but you did, warrior. Do you not recall my defensive training? Part of that was survival - you offered me roasted scorpion and rattlesnake blood!!"

"I found more palatable alternatives!" Koko whined in her defense, reminding Donoma of the cactus that had served as both food and drink.

"Yes, but only because I turned the color of my eyes if I recall correctly, warrior. For a time there, I was convinced you wanted me to fail." Donoma's face was teasing; Koko's countenance grew grave, not a hint of humor in her expression or manner.

"Not once did I ever desire your failure, ka'eskone."

"Oh, Koko... I know that now. I realized it later when I heard about warrior survival training - you did not spend extra time looking for things they would eat. They were expected to eat what they found or go hungry." She took Koko's face in her hands. "You never failed in your duty to look out for me, Koko Kanti, and I can appreciate those efforts very differently as an adult and your mate than I ever could as a child." She laughed softly and shook her head.


"It is so clear to me now. Why was it so hard to see before?" She looked into wide blue eyes. "Everyone knew, Koko... everyone saw. Everyone but me. What could have been so important to the Great Spirit that we needed to be separated for five cycles?"

Koko caught Donoma's hands in hers and kissed the knuckles. "Ka'eskone, I am not sure the Great Spirit had anything to do with it. Sometimes, it is just us and our decisions and their consequences. But...." stopping Donoma's protestations before they could begin, "it will be something you can ask one day in the very distant future when we go together to meet our fathers and mothers. However, you are going to have to let it go for now, ka'eskone. What's done is past - there is nothing we can do to change it. We can only live today for the precious gift that it is."

Donoma brought their joined hands to her lips, placing her own kiss over them. "When did you get to be so smart, warrior?"

"I could not help but be, Donoma Chepi. I have the smartest advisor in all the land. I could not have her think me an idiot now, could I?"

"Keep reminding me of today, warrior mine. I am tired of living in the past and finding only pain and loneliness in the present while seeing nothing but darkness in my future. I want to remember the past, but I want to live in the future and look towards the future with you."

Koko smiled. "You will... I will be right here to remind you until you remember."

"Good thing you love me so much."

"I never stopped." Then her declaration was interrupted by the loud rumble from two stomachs this time. "I suppose that is a sign we have had enough sentiment for the moment. We should take care of this and get started to town. The sooner we take care of our business there, the sooner we can come home again."

Donoma frowned. "Is there something about this that concerns you about this journey, warrior?"

"Several somethings, in fact, but they will not change or disappear if we delay. I need to speak with Stephen at any rate. I want to know what he has discovered about Washburn's accusations against me. The whole situation is difficult and strange."

"We will work it out, Koko... together."

"That is all I need, ka'eskone. Everything will figure itself out as long as we are together. Now come - it is time to introduce you to Miss Kitty and her bathtub with hot water." Donoma grinned and they went to into the kitchen to get some breakfast so they could get on their way.

Chapter XXXIII

Just as Koko had warned her, the town was noisy to the point of being painful. But even as that thought crossed Donoma's mind, the cacophony slowly fell into silence as their presence attracted attention and people stopped to stare. Koko reached over a reassuring hand, clasping Donoma's and squeezing. Donoma met Koko's eyes and smiled.

They rode without stopping until they reached the saloon. Koko dismounted and tied off both horses before turning to Donoma and helping her from Dapples. Then she took Donoma's hand again and they went inside without a backwards glance.

Benny whooped and called to the girls upstairs before coming around the bar. "Hey, Reb... long time, no see. Kitty, girls... git on down here and see who's come a-callin'."

At his first call girls started appearing over the banister railing, sticking their heads out the doors of their rooms to find out what the commotion was about. As soon as they recognized Reb, they gave their own cheer and swooped down the stairs en masse, swarming around the two women waiting there.

Kitty whistled above the melee, bringing the racket to an instant halt. All eyes turned in her direction and the girls split to create a pathway for Kitty to traverse. She did so slowly, looking for all the world like a panther stalking its prey. She held Reb's eyes for a long moment, then cupped the warrior's face in her hands before leaning forward to kiss her - only to find sparking green eye glaring at her from a very close distance.

"Mine," Donoma growled fiercely, stepping forward into Kitty's personal space and forcing the other woman to take a step back just to keep her balance. Koko hadn't even realized Donoma had moved until Kitty's brown eyes met hers in amusement. She smiled and wrapped her arms around Donoma's middle, pulling the smaller woman's body against her own.

"Always yours, ka'eskone. This is Kitty," motioning to the dark-haired woman who watched them in fascination. "My friend." She looked at Kitty. "Kitty, this is my mate, Donoma Chepi."

Kitty stepped back a bit and extended her hand. "It's nice to meet you, Donoma Chepi. You and your mate are welcome here."

Donoma studied Kitty's brown eyes intently for a moment, then accepted her hand in a gentle grip. "Thank you, Kitty... nice to meet you too," she replied slowly, wanting to get the words right. Kitty held her hand lightly and turned to face the girls waiting patiently behind her.

"Donoma, these are my girls," introducing them one by one and saving Ginger for the last. "Ginger is my go-to girl. And this strapping man is Benny, our barkeep. He's a decent sort, which is saying a lot in this town."

"Problem?" Koko asked, having stayed at Donoma's side the entire time Kitty had been introducing her to the girls in the saloon. Kitty shook her head.

"Nothing we have to talk about before lunch, Reb. And speaking of...." Kitty released Donoma's hand and went to the window, turning around the handmade sign that proclaimed them open for business. "I imagine the cowboys have been waiting for that, but I expect it'll get us a lot more business in here today," with a significant look in Koko's direction.

Koko and Donoma exchanged glances, then Reb acknowledged the remainder of the girls, though their greetings were far more restrained than was normal. No one wanted to upset Donoma further and it had been made painfully apparent that she and Reb Stone were bound to one another on a fairly deep level - certainly deeper than could be expected given Reb's reputation as a solitary figure. Surely the few weeks she'd been gone from them were not long enough to cultivate that sort of bond. Kitty decided to ask and motioned them towards the table Reb always took when she was there.

Reb took the corner against the wall where she could observe the entire room. Though it was empty save for them at the moment, she knew that would change and wanted to be prepared for any eventuality. Donoma sat next to her and the rest started filling in around the table - all except for Benny. He went back behind the bar knowing Kitty would give him the whole story later and needing to be ready for the customers he knew would be coming in.

A word from Kitty caused Ginger to grab a couple of the other girls and head into the kitchen. After only a moment, they returned with their arms full, followed by the roundest, darkest woman Donoma had ever seen. Donoma just stared. She didn't mean to, of course, but she couldn't seem to stop - the whites of the woman's eyes and teeth practically glowed against her dark skin. Koko rose and was engulfed in an embrace before she or Donoma could react and was released just as quickly.

"How you be, Reb Stone? I been hearin' 'bout you taking a wife - she wouldn't be this pretty little thing here now, would she?" taking Donoma's hand and tugging her from her seat. "C'mon and give Big Mama a hug, darlin'. Your Reb's 'bout the best friend mosta us womenfolk gots in this here town."

"Good friend to Donoma Chepi as well," Donoma said with a smile. Big Mama chuckled.

"I jus' bet, little one." Then she turned and headed back to the kitchen, still laughing. Donoma looked bemusedly at Koko who just laughed and shook her head.

"Do not question it, ka'eskone. Big Mama is a law unto herself, much like Kitty." The women around the table exchanged glances when the foreign tongue slipped easily from Reb's mouth. It hinted at an even deeper mystery than Donoma herself was. Kitty decided to take things in hand.

"So, Donoma," waiting until green eyes tracked to her brown ones. "Tell us how you and Reb met."

"Koko and I know each other long time - met as children."

Kitty's eyes widened comically. "Wait just a damn minute," she interrupted. "You mean to tell me the two of you are childhood sweethearts?!" She turned and glared at Koko. "Why are we just now hearin' about this, Reb?" Kitty smiled sweetly at Donoma. "So tell me about this romance."


"Aw c'mon, Reb. You've lived here off and on for five years and not once do we hear a word about anyone in your life then suddenly you turn up with a wife and we're not even supposed to be a little curious?" Ginger cut in before Kitty could answer.

"All you need to know for now is that Donoma and I grew up together and just recently found one another again. Being married is new for us."

Kitty grinned broadly. "Well, I have to say it suits you both perfectly, but I want to hear more about it later. For now, it looks like word of your arrival in town had made the rounds. An audience is gathering in your honor." Her smile turned to a grimace. "We're not the only ones who are curious."

Stephen Murphy was the first in the door and he walked over to greet both Koko and Donoma as long lost friends. Donoma looked her confusion at Koko, but the warrior didn't say anything - blue eyes merely promised an explanation later.

Next came Colonel John Spencer. He shook Reb's hand and did the same to Donoma, albeit far more gently. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Stone. We need to talk," he said addressing Koko. "Not about this... about the other matter. But it will wait until after lunch. May we join you?" he asked politely. Most of the girls had gotten up as soon as patrons started coming in the doors. Only Kitty and Ginger remained.

Koko looked at Donoma who held her gaze for a long moment before nodding. Koko took her hand and Donoma grasped it tightly, though no one watching them could have told that from the expression on either face. Koko turned back to Murphy and Spencer.

"Please," motioning them to a chair.

They took their seats and an awkward silence fell. Donoma stared at the Blue Coat - she had never been this close to one before. She only knew of them because the warriors of the tribe spoke of them with great disdain. More than wild animals, more than starvation or disease, more than any other affliction the People suffered from, the Blue Coat was the most feared... the most hated. And yet here sat one at the table with then, eating lunch as though he was just like everyone else Donoma knew and not the monster she had always been told that Blue Coats were.

"Mrs. Stone, I understand you're an Injun, but you don't look anything like any Injun I've ever seen. Why is that?"

Donoma understood that his words were an insult, but it was Koko who reacted without a pause. Her blue eyes blazed fury and she slammed her hands on the table; only Donoma's free hand on her leg offered her a sense of calm. She met Donoma's eyes and then took a deep breath. "Colonel Spencer, I'm sure you meant no disrespect to Donoma Chepi, but I'm only gonna tell you once to watch your tone. She's done nothing to earn your derision. Try to remember that."

Spencer had the good grace to look abashed at her words and faced Donoma with a red face. "My apologies, Mrs. Stone. I didn't intend to be rude - I'm just curious."

"People found... took in when still baby. Made family. I ask you question?" At his nod, she continued. "Why Blue Coat?"

Spencer was taken aback, not having expected such forthrightness. He looked at her thoughtfully for a long moment. "Tradition," he answered finally. "It's all I know... all the men in my family have done for generations."

"Glad not your family then," Donoma stated bluntly. "Blue Coats cause much trouble for People."

Before Spencer could ask for a definition, Reuben Washburn's voice rang out from the street. "Stone!!"

As one body the entire table rose and went to the door, Reb in the lead. She looked out to find him staring at her as though she was the Devil Incarnate, and she hiked an eyebrow at him in question.

"Something I can do for you, Washburn?" She stepped out of the saloon, followed closely by Donoma who clutched her hand like a lifeline. He sneered derisively at her.

"Yes, you thieving, murdering son of a whore - think you're so tough you marry a woman to prove your manhood. I'm calling you out, Stone. You wanna be a man so bad - time to take it and die like one."

Spencer stepped forward then, only to find an arm held by Murphy and his chest stopped by Reb's upraised hand. "Stone, this is an Army matter...."

"No, Spencer... this is personal. He brought the fight to me; now I'm gonna finish it." She turned to Donoma and spoke in the language of the People. "I have to do this, ka'eskone. He will haunt us for the rest of our lives if I do not. He is just that type - cannot accept that he is wrong and cannot let go of an idea whether it is a mistake or not."

"You will take care of this and come back to me?"

"Oh yes, beloved. I could have beaten him even before we were joined. Now I have every reason to do so - we have a life to live together."

Donoma cupped Koko's face in her hands. "Do what needs to be done, warrior. I will be here waiting."

"Stone!!! You coming? Or do I need to shoot you where you stand and take your whore." He grinned sickly, and Koko wondered if he was drunk. "That's not a bad idea," he mused, reaching for his weapon. It took him ten full seconds to realize that the gunshot he heard hadn't come from his still holstered pistol. Instead it was blossoming across his chest in a wash of red blood. He looked down stupidly for a moment before looking back up to meet her deadly glare. "Son of a bitch - that hurts!" he mumbled before his mind understood he was dead and buckled his legs out from under him.

There was silence for a moment, then Reb re-holstered her gun and looked at Donoma. She saw no horror... no disgust... no triumph or satisfaction. She only saw love reflected back at her out of those bright green eyes and she accepted the gift that it was with a small smile and open arms, gratified when Donoma didn't even hesitate.

After a moment, Stephen Murphy cleared his throat awkwardly. "Well, that was unorthodox, but certainly effective." Koko and Donoma separated just slightly and looked at him, but before he could elaborate, John Spencer spoke.

"You know there will need to be an inquiry," the colonel stated as they watched Washburn's body being removed from the street.

"Into what, Spence? He challenged Reb in front of a town full of witnesses and he drew first on her... or tried to at any rate. What part of that needs an inquiry?"

"It's a formality, Murphy. Like him or not, Reuben Washburn was an officer in the United States Army. His death has to be documented." He paused. "We did the same for Leroy."

"You can document his death without an inquiry. There are plenty of folks standing right here who will be more than willing to give testimony to the fact that Reuben Washburn's death was his own fault and by his own choice."

Spencer looked around, seeing shopkeepers in every door way up and down Main Street. Kitty's girls were standing along the sidewalk in front of the saloon and even the old biddies were poking their noses out from behind the curtains of their respectable residences. He nodded his head.

"All right... you've got a point. Though I doubt anything will satisfy Mordecai Washburn. He's one mean son of a bitch... begging your pardon, ma'am," with a bow in Donoma's direction. "I guess this settles the matter of the horse thieving as well. I never did buy into it, but he was adamant in his accusations against you, Stone."


"Huh? Why what?"

"Why was he so insistent that I was a horse thief? What was his brother doing that I was accused of committing such a crime? There has to be a reason behind it."

"I don't... I never really thought about it - never gave it any serious consideration."

"Again... why?" Koko looked at him, holding Donoma firmly next to her. "I understand you not taking the charges seriously, and I appreciate that... believe me. But that doesn't explain why you didn't look into it, Spence."

Spencer frowned. "Why would I, Reb? The charge was unfounded."

Koko sighed and rolled her eyes, trying to make the man see what she was getting at. Then Donoma spoke. "Why man tell lies?"

The colonel opened his mouth and then stopped as he thought about what Donoma had just asked. "That's a good question," he finally admitted. "Why did he make up something like that? He had to know without proof that I would take your word over his."

"Not necessarily," Murphy spoke up. "After all, he was an officer in the Army and Reb, no matter her reputation is still a woman doing what is generally considered to be a man's job. Still, it bears some looking into." He turned to Koko. "I'll see what I can find out, though there has been precious little evidence to show much of anything so far. Them boys what went out with Leroy ain't saying much."

"You think they know something?"

"I know they do," Ginger spoke up suddenly. All eyes swung in her direction. "What?" she asked plaintively. "They do. Some of those soldier boys like to talk and some of them talk in their sleep." She took an automatic step backwards when they began to crowd closer to her.

"What do you know?" Murphy asked. Ginger raised her hands.

"Back up... you're crowding me and I don't like it." Fire sparked out of her gray eyes and the red of her hair seemed to flame with her intensity. Kitty placed a gentle hand on Stephen's arm and drew him back towards her, giving Ginger a bit of breathing space.

"C'mon, fellas - give a lady some room. I'm sure Ginger'll share whatever she knows with all of you if you'll just give her a chance. Now I have an idea... why don't the three of you," pointing to Spencer, Murphy and Stone, "go with Ginger and buy her a drink? I'm sure her story will be much easier to tell if she can relax a little bit."

"Where are you going, Miss Kitty?" Murphy asked boldly. She arched a brow at him.

"Not that it's actually your business at the moment, Stephen, but I thought Donoma and I could go have a little girl talk of our own. She can tell me her story... I can tell her some stories about Reb." She grinned. "It'll be fun."

Donoma looked at Koko for advice; Koko held her hands lightly. "You might enjoy it, ka'eskone, but you do not have to if it would make you uncomfortable. I think you would like Kitty if you would take the opportunity to get to know her. It is your choice."

Donoma looked between Kitty and Koko - finding mischief and mirth in the brown eyes and love and faith in the blue ones.

"Yes," she said simply to Kitty's request. Kitty smiled as though she'd been given a gold coin.

"Wonderful," she returned enthusiastically. "Let's go to the kitchen. Big Mama will serve us lemonade and we can have a little quiet and privacy to talk." She waved her hands in Ginger's direction. "These guys will be a while. We might as well enjoy ourselves." And without further adieu the two women disappeared into the kitchen.

Koko watched them go, then acceded to the tugging on her arm that Stephen Murphy was steadily applying. "Reb, will you c'mon already? I wanna hear what Ginger has to say."

"Yes," Spencer agreed coming up on her other side. "It might go a ways towards giving us the answers to those questions we have about why."

Koko shrugged her shoulders. "All right. I'm coming. I just hope she has something we can use. I want to know what Reuben Washburn thought he could prove."

Murphy snorted. "I wanna know what really happened out there on the Plains. Oh... not the part with Donoma," seeing the anger build in Koko's eyes. "I believe she told us exactly what happened for the part she was involved in. But I wanna know what caused that to begin with. I'm wondering if maybe the Army is housing a den of horse thieves."

"It sure would explain a lot... except why."

"Well, us standing around here isn't getting us any answers. Let's go see what Miss Ginger has to say. Your wife'll be fine with Miss Kitty and Big Mama... although your marriage may never be the same after they get done talking. You know how women get," he teased as they made their way to the table where Ginger and Spencer were waiting.

Koko smirked at him. "Murph, I *am* a woman, remember? But Donoma has known me far longer than Kitty has. I don't think Kitty could tell her anything she doesn't already know about me."

Ginger looked up as they took a seat. "Maybe not, but I bet Kitty had some new stories to tell the rest of us about you before the day is through," she said with eyes twinkling as she lifted her glass. Koko just dropped her head face down onto the table.

"I am so doomed."

Chapter XXXIV

"Donoma? May I call you Donoma or would you prefer Mrs. Stone?" Kitty asked after they had seated themselves and Big Mama had brought forth a plate of sugar cookies and two glasses of lemonade.

"Donoma good." Kitty smiled and patted her hand.

"Donoma it is then; you can call me Kitty. Only the fellas usually call me Miss Kitty." Donoma nodded her head and picked up a cookie at Big Mama's insistence.

"Is good fo' ya chile? eat up now. I cain't let ya get up from mah table hungry."

"Listen to her, Donoma. Big Mama looks out for all of us." She waited until Donoma had bitten into the cookie, smiling at the delight that covered her face as the sweetness hit Donoma's taste buds. "Now tell me how it is you speak and understand English so well. Did a missionary come to your tribe or...?" Kitty stopped talking when she noticed the furrowed look of concentration on Donoma's face, then she slapped herself in the forehead. "I'm sorry, Donoma - I should have asked you where you learned to speak the white man's language."

"Rae'l," she answered succinctly. "Koko's Nahko'e... mother. She teach People read books... understand words. Learn much."

"I'm glad she did, Donoma. I would've hated not to've had this chance to get to know you."


Kitty blinked. Donoma was nothing if not forthright evidently. "Well," she said slowly, considering her words, "you're a new friend to make for one thing. Those don't come along around here everyday. And you're Reb Stone's new mate. That makes you even more interesting. You see," she added, pausing for a sip of lemonade, "we don't know very much about Reb - only what little she's seen fit to share. It'd be nice to learn a little bit more about her too."

"Like what?"

Kitty pinched her lips thoughtfully before speaking. "You said you were children together," waiting for Donoma to nod. "What was she like... growing up?"

"Koko strong warrior and Donoma's friend."

Kitty waited but nothing more was forthcoming. Finally she tilted her head in question. "Is that all? Surely there is more you can tell us," noting that Big Mama was paying close attention to the conversation even as she stayed busy in the kitchen.

"Not understand what you want to know," Donoma offered, her confusion evident.

Kitty thought a moment. "All righty - how 'bout this? I'll tell you something about the Reb Stone I know, then you can tell me something about... what do you call her?"

"Koko Kanti."

Kitty nodded. "You can tell me something about Koko Kanti. I'll start." She paused a moment as she went back in her mind to her first meeting with Reb Stone. "When Reb came to town, she was dressed in buckskin and it drew all sorts of attention to her. She looked so lost... so heartbroken, but only if you looked into her eyes. On the surface, she was completely unemotional, and that caused the men in this town to underestimate her.

Oh, Donoma... I wish you could have been here. They thought they could mock her and poke fun...." Kitty chuckled. "I have never seen anything so fierce. She took on all comers. But it wasn't without price and when it was over, she came here... to my place. Big Mama and I nursed her back to health and soon she was lookin' out for all my girls. The first time some cowboy raised a hand to Ginger, Reb broke his arm. The fellas learned right quick to mind their manners - it was a nice change from the roughhousin' we'd had to put up with before she came here."

"Koko Kanti always protector," Donoma stated bluntly. "From time she join People."

"Folks 'round here learned that lesson pretty quick," Kitty said with a smile, pleased when it was returned.

"Warriors learned quick too," Donoma confided. "Koko beat all."

"I'll bet she did," Kitty agreed with a laugh. "I saw her take on grown men twice her size. She made herself quite a reputation. That's how she ended up with that horse of hers, ya know." Donoma's eyes widened and she shook her head. "She didn't tell you that story?" Donoma shook her head again and even Big Mama laughed this time. Kitty shook her head in disbelief. "Figures, 'cause it's something of a tale to be tellin' for sure.

I guess Reb had been here 'bout a week by then and she'd healed up right nice from her fightin'. The men of the town were a bit more respectful towards her and the 'respectable' women just stayed away. They still don't know what to make of her."

"Why make? Why not accept?"

"Oh honey, if I knew the answer to that question, the world would be a different place. It'd sure as hell make a lot more sense. However, I'm not concerned 'bout people like that - I ain't got the time to waste worryin' bout what they think of me or anyone else.

So anyway, some of the local cowboys was riding some steers into town and somehow or other along the way, they managed to wrangle a stallion into the herd. I couldn't believe my eyes. Prettiest horse you ever saw, but feisty... almost mean.

Well, they managed to get it corralled separate from the cows and then the bets started running about who was gonna claim it. The Army boys... they was pretty sure one of them would take him - after all, they had men whose sole job was to break and train horses, right? So of course that made them the odds on favorites... 'cept for one thing. No one reckoned on Reb Stone and her ability to communicate with animals like she could."

Donoma's eyes shone. She had several fond memories of Koko Kanti talking to animals most of the People never got a chance to be near. Kitty caught her expression.

"I take it you've seen her in action before."

"Yes... with panther, fox and wolf."

Kitty's eyes got big and round. "Damnation!" she muttered. "Woman doesn't fool around much, does she? That makes a stallion seem tame no matter how mean he is. Still, it's a good story, so...." She paused thoughtfully. "Ya know, now that I think about it, this is when those Washburn boys started making trouble for Reb. She got something they wanted," she mused almost to herself.

After a moment she shook herself from her reverie and looked at Donoma. "Sorry... got to thinking for a minute there. Where was I? Oh right... Reb and that stallion. So anyway, the men gathered round the corral - they'd drawn lots to see who would go first and Malcolm Washburn was the first to go up." Seeing the questions in the green eyes, Kitty held up her hand. "It'll make sense in a minute.

See, Malcolm's the youngest of the Washburn boys, but he ain't part of the Army. No, he works his daddy's huge spread 'bout a hundred miles from here; he was here visitin' his brothers. Well, 'bout the time he climbed up on that black's back, Reb, come outta the saloon to see what all the ruckus was about. That horse took one good look at her and bucked Malcolm off so hard, I bet his ears are still ringin'. He tried to get back on, but that black back kicked him in the knee and Malcolm crumpled."

Donoma winced reflexively. No matter her feelings for those whose last name was Washburn, she wouldn't wish that sort of misfortune on anyone. Just the idea sounded painful. Kitty nodded her unspoken agreement. "I have never heard a man scream like that before. Far's I know, it never did set just right. Malcolm walks with a pronounced limp and he no longer rides a horse. Could be wrong about that - after all, it's been a while since I've seen him, but I don't think so.

Now Reb was just standing along the corral fence like all the rest. She didn't move... didn't do anything to draw awareness to herself, but I think it was her utter stillness that pulled that horse's attention to her. Now before you ask, me and the girls had wandered out with her. Might as well have - every able-bodied man in town was there... we weren't doing any business anyway.

So the black approaches her and the men step back a pace, just to watch what'll happen. Malcolm was screamin' and Leroy and Reuben had already rushed to move him outta the corral to keep him from being hurt further if the horse decided to turn on him. But once he was out and being looked at by the Army doc, Leroy jumped back in, furious."

"He like rock," Donoma said unexpectedly. Kitty did a double take at her words, then burst into laughter. Even Big Mama chortled and brought the pitcher of lemonade to the table before taking a seat and filling all three glasses. Kitty nodded her thanks and Donoma did the same before turning back to Kitty. "What funny? Spoke truth."

"Chile, you sure nuff did that, but mos' folks roun' des parts don' do mucha dat. Too busy worryin' 'bout things as don' concern 'em."

"Big Mama's right, Donoma," Kitty confirmed. "So many folks worried 'bout what others think they don't generally speak so plainly. It's refreshing. And you're right - Leroy was like a rock. Most folks round here figured his daddy bought his commission, cause he damned sure wasn't bright enough to earn it." She sighed and took a drink.

"Finish tellin' Kitty, 'fore I haveta get back to the stove," Big Mama chided.

"All right, Big Mama... all right. So anyway, Leroy decided he was gonna teach that horse some manners, 'cept that the horse had already picked the one he wanted. Leroy grabbed the black by the mane and the horse bit him - hard enough to draw blood but not quite hard enough to break anything. His mates pulled him out of the circle, then the rest waited to see what was gonna happen 'tween Reb and that horse.

The horse butted her hard enough to knock her to the ground and she woulda fallen had she not clutched the railing quick enough. The horse whinnied, laughing at her and butted her again - only this time he got caught. She grabbed his nostrils and pinched. He shook his head trying to shake her loose, but she held on... not hurtin' him, but making damn sure he knew who was boss. After a moment, he shook his head again, but in surrender this time. When she let go, he butted her again, but this time he was gentle and he just pushed his head into her chest, waiting to be scratched.

Now, several of the other men tried to approach that stallion, but after they were all rather viciously turned away by the horse, most of them walked away and left Reb to it. Only Leroy seemed unable to take a hint and he thought he'd try again, only to have Reb jump on the horse's back before he could get close enough to do anything.

The stallion reared, nearly clocking Leroy in the head, and he scampered outta that ring quick-like. Reb held on through all the bucking and twisting that black could manage and after only a few minutes, he was walking under her direction. Oh, Donoma... I've never seen anything more magnificent in my life and she was so proud sitting up there. Then he bucked and twisted a little more and we realized that he was playin' with her... his idea of fun."

"I seems to 'member Reb walkin' funny after alla dat, but wearin' the biggest grin I ever seen on her face," Big Mama said. "'Twas good to see her so happy, even all black 'n' blue."

"Black 'n' blue?" Donoma repeated slowly.

"Oh yes, chile... that horse maya been playin', but Reb wore his roughhousin' on her pusson for a few days. Never did lose that smile when she looked at him though." She rose from her place and walked back to the stove, removing the lid and stirring the pot a few times before shifting it away from the heat. "That'll do fo' now," she said before reclaiming her seat.

"No, she didn't," Kitty agreed. "But there were sure some disgruntled men round here for a day or two."

"Only dem Washburn boys, Kitty. Tell it fair."

"No, Mama... a few of the fellas were a little upset that they didn't get their shot at Black, but they were smart enough to know that if the horse made the choice, they wouldn't have had a chance anyway. Leroy was the one who couldn't let it go - said Reb hadn't put in her dollar to ride 'em so she couldn't get to keep him." She exchanged glances with Mama and they snickered. "When that horse kicked Leroy in his privates, he learned to stay far away."

"He shot me," Donoma said suddenly, bringing two sets of eyes to her face.

"You're kiddin'," Kitty said disbelievingly. For answer, Donoma widened the neck of her shirt until the two women sitting with her could see the scarred pink skin at her shoulder. Big Mama reached out, then looked at Donoma for permission. When the blonde head nodded, she touched the newly healed wound with tender, knowing fingers.

"You healed good, chile."

"Koko cared for me; made Donoma well again."

"Why?" Kitty asked, then held up her hands when incredulous green eyes turned her way full of questions. "Wait... that didn't come out right. I know why Reb cared for you - anyone with half an eye can see she's crazy in love with you, Donoma. Why did Leroy Washburn shoot you, and how do you know it was Leroy?"

"Marshall say Leroy. Shot to steal Black."

"You're kiddin'," Kitty repeated and Donoma glared.

"Not kidding," she stated firmly.

"Right then," Kitty said after a moment. "So tell us something about growing up with Reb... Koko Kanti," she corrected herself. "Something about the two of you."

Donoma focused inward for a few moments, then nodded to herself. She wouldn't embarrass Koko, but she wanted these women to know the woman she loved.

"When Donoma was eight cycles, Koko teach to swim. Was scared - never been in deep water before."

"Where did she teach you to swim out here?"

Donoma shrugged. "Big water... Koko find. First teach float on water. Lay in Koko's strong arms and find pictures in clouds. Donoma not know when Koko let go. Not know until Koko move to other side."

"Did you panic?" Kitty asked, remembering her first experience learning how to swim. Somehow she thought Reb would have been a much gentler instructor that Kitty's older brother had been. Donoma's brow furrowed as she pondered the unfamiliar word Kitty had used.

"Was frightened, then Koko calmed. Saw her, knew no more fear. After, she teach swim... and catch fish with hands."

Two sets of brown eyes widened at this pronouncement and they exchanged looks with one another before looking at Donoma and goggling.

"Excuse me?"

"What you said, chile?"

Donoma spoke more slowly, thinking it was her halting use of the white man's tongue that was causing their confusion. "Koko teach swim and catch fish with hands."

They blinked rapidly, still goggling. "Can you really *do* that?"

"Yes," Donoma stated without hesitation.

"Reb do dat too?" turning to Kitty before Donoma could reply. "Wonner why we'uns never knowed dat?"

"Probably because we're not that close to any real source of water here," Kitty responded dryly.

"Mebbe... mebbe Big Mama'll ask for some fish nex' time Reb come to town."

"Maybe Kitty'll ask for a live demonstration." Kitty turned back to Donoma. "What do you think, Donoma? Would Reb show us how to catch fish with our hands?"

"Donoma not know. Koko not teach warriors except Honaw and he not do good."

"Well, maybe we'll ask her, but not today. I think she's had a hard enough day today already."

"We get hot bath today - Koko promise Donoma."

Kitty smiled. She liked Donoma - first for Reb's sake and then for her own. She was definitely Reb's equal but still a good match... complimenting Reb's personality to a T. She patted Donoma's hand and rose from her place. "Well, then... if Reb promised you a hot bath, I think we should go pry her away from Stephen and the Colonel and get ya'll set up. Big Mama... thank you for the cookies and lemonade. They were scrumptious."

"Yes," Donoma agreed. "Donoma like very much," standing as well.

Big Mama smiled her toothy grin. "Chile, you welcome in mah kitchen any time." Then she stood and enveloped Donoma in a brief hug before moving back to her stove. Kitty shook her head at Donoma's expression, then directed them back out into the main part of the saloon.

Koko was watching for them and stood as soon as they appeared. Ginger hadn't been able to tell them much more than they already knew and she'd been biding her time, wanting Kitty and Donoma to make friends in their own way. Her shoulders sagged with relief when they came out smiling and chatting quietly until they reached the table. Then Kitty glared at her.

"Reb Stone, I expect you to be bringin' this lovely young bride of yours to town a little more often than once every five years. I know you said you're newlyweds and all," Kitty conceded holding up a hand. "But I'm puttin' you on notice. Big Mama and I enjoyed our visit with Donoma Chepi and we'd like to do it a little more regularly. Now," she continued without pause, "Donoma informs me you promised to introduce her to the joys of a hot bath. So go put Black up and bring your stuff in. I'm gonna show her to your room and you can take things from there."

Koko nodded, wondering when exactly she'd lost control of the situation. Then she heard muffled chuckling coming from behind her and turned to glare at Murphy and Spencer. They bit their lips and stood.

"I'll get the telegrams sent out about Washburn," the Colonel said as he snatched up his hat. "Though I'm thinking his old man may come into town for this. He's not gonna like it."

"Too damn bad," Reb commented. "Not my fault."

"I'm still gonna do some looking around. Somethin' about this whole thing ain't sittin' just right with me. I'll let you know what I find out," Murphy said, addressing both of them.

Koko nodded and held out her hand to Donoma who was instantly at her side. "Sounds good," she agreed. "We'll be here til in the morning, but after that, we're heading home again. We may travel to the People for the summer celebration, but that is still a ways off. Now if you gentlemen will excuse us...." The two tipped their hats towards Donoma and Koko turned to Kitty.

"I'll be a couple minutes. I need to speak to Hassun. Spence offered to send him here."

Kitty nodded. "We'll be fine, Reb. Take care of your business."

"I won't be long, ka'eskone," to Donoma. Then she turned and left the saloon, leaving Donoma to follow Kitty up the stairs.

Chapter XXXV

"I can see the appeal of a hot bath," Donoma said as she leaned back into Koko's body and allowed the warm water to surround them again. She felt Koko chuckle behind her and smiled in response. Kitty had been as good as her word and taken Donoma upstairs and assured that she was comfortable and a promise that they would talk again later. Donoma had taken the opportunity to look around the sparse room, noting the impersonality of it. Obviously this was not a home - it was merely a resting place.

"I thought you might," Koko replied as she absently rubbed her fingers over soap-slicked skin. "Now you understand why I wanted to introduce you to the experience. Although it's not worth living in town for, it's a nice treat when I'm here. That is one reason I would really like to build one in the cabin - no trips into town for a hot bath. Besides, I could make it large enough to comfortably fit us without needing to curl my knees up out of the water."

Donoma turned her head until she could meet Koko's eyes. "I believe I would enjoy that, warrior."

Now Koko's laugh was rolling and Donoma joined her, enjoying the sensation as Koko's hands tightened reflexively around her middle. "I believe we both would, ka'eskone."

The quiet was comfortable, but after a few minutes, Donoma asked, "Koko, why did you need to speak to Hassun? Is he not the Army scout?"

"He is indeed, ka'eskone. I needed him to take care of something. He is going to the People to ask them to keep an eye out for possible horse thieves. The accusations are coming from somewhere and that usually means they are based in fact. I believe they could be instrumental in helping apprehend whoever is behind this - if that is what Leroy Washburn was doing when he tried to take Black, they will eventually come across the People in their search for wild horses."

"Will they be all right, Koko? I do not want this to bring trouble to them and I have had no vision...."

"Ka'eskone, you know as well as I do that the Great Spirit does not always gift you with sight when you desire it. But do you not think that it is better for the People to be prepared for the possibility of trouble than for it to come upon them unaware? Honaw will prepare the warriors and they will be alert for anything out of the ordinary."

"You are right, warrior. It just...."

"I know, ka'eskone. And I would not involve them now if I did not expect them to be involved later. There is a reason that Leroy was so close to the People when he stumbled across you and Black. Spencer has never given orders for such small scouting parties to go so far west in their search for horses without having the entire brigade behind them to back them up if they run into trouble."

Silence fell again as Donoma considered Koko's words. "Why?" she asked finally.

Koko frowned. "Why what, Donoma?" having lost the train of the conversation during the ensuing quiet. Her focus had changed to the smooth slickness of the skin she was enveloping and it took a moment to return her attention to their previous discussion.

"Why have the Blue Coats not raided the People's territory for their horses? Honaw says they are thieves and cowards, attacking without reason. And we follow the buffalo - surely that would be sufficient for the People to have been brought to their attention by now."

"Perhaps... I am inclined to agree with Honaw's assessment for the most part. I know the warriors go out to do battle with them to keep the Blue Coats from coming to the People and Takoda is vigilant about watching for dreams and signs to keep the People safe. But since coming into the white man's world, I have discovered that the Blue Coats have a vested interest in keeping the warriors of the tribes busy while stealing their land and forwarding their own interests."

"Then why are you friends with the Blue Coat Spencer?"

Koko sighed. "Because life here is a series of compromises, ka'eskone. And I could not function as a bounty hunter without his support."

Donoma thought about that - then decided that the complexities of white man's world were far more intricate than she was going to appreciate any time soon. "I do not understand, but that is not important at the moment. I have a feeling I could try to comprehend the white man until the Great Spirit calls me to the great beyond and still not begin to understand their thinking."

Koko chuckled lightly. "I do not think they understand themselves, ka'eskone. Otherwise, they would not be so disruptive to everything around them."

"Enough about the white men and their Blue Coats for now," Donoma proclaimed definitively. "I want to know how Black knew how to find us... why he brought you to the People when you told him to take you home."

Koko sighed. She'd wondered when Donoma would get around to asking that question. "Come," she said, rising carefully behind Donoma and allowing the water to sheet from her body before she stepped from the tub. She extended her hand and Donoma took it, standing as well and flushing under Koko's appreciative gaze.

Koko smiled and took one of the rough towels Kitty had left for them, rubbing it randomly over Donoma's sensitive skin, taking special care around the tender scar tissue. She smiled and dropped the towel once Donoma was dry, tracing her fingers over the goosebumps left behind. Donoma shivered, then captured Koko's hand, bringing it to her mouth and laving each finger thoroughly.

Koko whimpered and felt her knees bucking. "Ka'eskone," she whispered. "Please." Donoma retrieved the second towel and began her own thorough drying session, smiling in satisfaction when Koko trembled under her touch. Without warning, the warrior turned and pulled Donoma into her, so they were in contact along their entire lengths. She claimed Donoma fiercely, passionately and only when the seer's knees buckled under the strain of continuing to hold her upright did Koko pull back slightly.

Their communication was unspoken, yet it was heard as clearly as though the words had been said aloud. Koko let her arms unwind from the embrace they'd cradled Donoma in, sliding her hands down smooth arms until they met Donoma's hands. Then she clasped her hands and lifted them to her lips.

"I love you, Donoma Chepi," she said in English. Donoma crinkled up her nose with the smile that crossed her face when Koko spoke those words.

"I love you, Koko Kanti Reb Stone," she replied in slow, halting English. Koko leaned forward and kissed her nose, chuckling.

"I never realized how all those names together would sound. It is a little ridiculous."

Donoma grinned. "I am glad I need not use them all every time I wish to speak to you, warrior. I think my voice would soon give out."

The sound of raucous laughter intruded and then a heavy body fell against the door. Koko growled but before she could pull away, Donoma had snatched up Koko's dressing gown and slipped it over her head.

"Mine," she stated clearly to the unasked question in Koko Kanti's eyes. "If you are going to go out there to teach him some manners," indicating the door that had rattled again, "I would prefer if you do so clothed. I do not share well with others."

Koko smiled at the possessive tone. "I seem to recall that," she said, claiming another kiss. "Get dressed, Nutta. I'll be right back." She eased Donoma behind the door before opening it and stepping out into the hall.

Donoma slid into her own dressing gown, running her hands along the odd, stiff material. It wasn't like anything she had worn before, and though it was not unlike Koko's, it was not worn like hers either and had not attained the softness of wear. She pushed her sleeve up, remembering Koko's earlier instructions about the tub as they prepared for their bath. She pulled the plug, then collected their things, trying to ignore the thumping and groaning just outside the door.

After another moment, the door opened and a slightly disheveled Koko stood in front of her with a crooked smile. "Come, ka'eskone," she beckoned. "I have a story to tell you and we have some unfinished business to take care of."

Donoma took Koko's hand and let her lead her down the hall to the far door. Then they entered the quiet privacy of their room and Koko closed the door carefully behind them before locking it securely. Then she pulled her dressing gown over her head and stepped closer to Donoma.

"Now... where were we?" sliding her hands along Donoma's ribs. Green eyes twinkled devilishly.

"You were going to tell me about Black and how he was able to find us."

Koko growled, deliberately unbuttoning Donoma's clothing and sliding her hands inside. "The story will keep, ka'eskone. I will not."

Donoma ginned and tangled her hands in the still-wet, dark hair. "Good to know you have your priorities straight, warrior," claiming Koko's lips before she could respond. Koko lifted Donoma into her arms, ignoring the strain on her belly and depositing the two of them in the middle of her small bed. Fortunately, she thought as one of Donoma's hands scratched the back of her neck as the other began to explore the contours of her torso, it was just big enough for two.

And that was really all they needed for now. Talk would come later.


When word came from the People's scouts that an Army scout was headed towards the camp, the warriors moved as one body to prepare for battle. Honaw, remembering Koko's words to him and Keezheekoni, asked Odahingum for permission to meet the scout alone first.

"If he is who I think he is," Honaw intoned seriously, "he brings news from Koko Kanti."

"And if he is not?" Odahingum replied with equal seriousness. "Honaw, you are among the best warriors the People have, but even you cannot defeat the Blue Coats alone." He sighed. "At least take a small party with you to watch your back - for my peace of mind if nothing else."

"Thank you, Odahingum," Honaw answered with a nod. "I will take Keezheekoni and my hestatanemos. We will not be long." He motioned to the warriors he had selected, making sure the rest knew to wait. Then they rode off in the direction where the interloper waited them. Odahingum turned to Takoda.

"Any thoughts, my friend?"

"Nothing I am certain you have not already considered. If Koko Kanti has sent someone in her stead, it probably does not bode well for good news. Otherwise, she and Donoma Chepi would be here themselves. On the other hand, at least we will get news if it is not an ambush."

Odahingum motioned to his fire and Takoda took the seat offered. Odahingum resumed his own and sighed. "Do you think they will return home to us, Takoda?"

Takoda shook his dark head. "I cannot say, my friend. The Great Spirit has shown me nothing concerning the two of them. I am not certain if that is a bad sign or a good one."

Odahingum chuckled. "With the two of them involved, it is hard to say. Do you remember when they took off and disappeared for three days?"

Takoda laughed. "Oh yes... the only reason I did not panic is I knew Donoma Chepi was in the safest hands possible. But it did not stop me from wondering why they left... or why they came back covered in mud."

"They never told you?"

Takoda shook his head. "No... they were very good at keeping secrets when they wanted to."

Odahingum nodded his agreement, then looked back in the direction Honaw and his compatriots had gone. "I hope Honaw is right... and this is news from Koko Kanti. Perhaps it will explain the lack of Blue Coat activity around us lately." He sighed. "I should be grateful for the rest, and I am on some level. But it is very wearing waiting for an attack that has yet to come."

"I know, Odahingum. I do not know if it is our change in course that has eliminated the attacks recently or if something has changed for the Blue Coats. Either way, the bit of peace has been nice, but I sense the warriors are on edge."

"Do you think we should resume our normal course to the summer encampment?"

Takoda shrugged. "I think we should wait and see what Honaw and his party discover about our mysterious visitor. If he is not an advance scout for a Blue Coat attack, he might have some answers for us. The Great Spirit works in inexplicable ways sometimes."

"My friend, the Great Spirit *always* works in ways I do not understand. I am glad you do."

Takoda grinned. "At least on occasion."

Then Honaw's war party was returning escorting the unknown scout and Takoda and Odahingum rose to meet him.

Honaw dismounted his horse and motioned to the other warriors to do the same. Keezheekoni dismissed them, indicating his seriousness by shooing them away from the chief's fire and back to their other responsibilities. Most went back to their own fires, but kept a watchful eye on the people gathered around Odahingum's firepit.

Honaw stood beside Hassun, waiting for an invitation to join Odahingum and Takoda. Hassun stood still, unmoving, understanding he was being weighed in the balance. He had chosen not to wear his Blue Coat, knowing it was a source of much hatred and derision out here among the People. He wondered again how he had come to this... once a proud warrior of his own tribe until the lure of the white man's world became too much. Now he had no real place to call home - the whites disdained him and the People despised him. Then his attention was taken by Odahingum and he let his thoughts slide to the wayside. There was nothing to be done for them anyway.

The chief motioned him to a seat and he accepted with a slight nod before taking a seat. Honaw sat on one side and Keez sat on the other, with the two elders sitting side by side across from them.

"So," Odahingum started unceremoniously, "you bring news from Koko Kanti?"

Hassun nodded. "I do Chief Odahingum," remembering the names Reb Stone had impressed upon his memory. "She asked that I let you know that the People could be in imminent danger."

"We are always in danger from the Blue Coats," Odahingum stated without hesitation. "Why would she see fit to warn me of something of which I am already aware?"

"She did not indicate that the danger was specifically from the Blue Coats, Chief. There are horse thieves working in these parts, and while that is not necessarily a new threat, she believes they are targeting the People as they are strong with many horses and buffalo. And you are currently the closest tribe to the white man's outpost."

Takoda and Odahingum exchanged glances, but said nothing in front of the stranger. Litonya stood just outside the circle and Odahingum beckoned her forward, knowing if he was curious, she had to be as well. She nodded her thanks and took her place beside Takoda. Hassun looked at her questioningly, but knew if the chief had invited her, there must be a reason that a woman had joined them.

Litonya studied Hassun for a moment, liking his eyes despite what she knew to be the truth about him. Blue Coat scouts were seen as traitors to the People, so if Koko Kanti had made friends with the young man, there must be something worthy about him.

"Tell me... have you seen Koko Kanti and Donoma Chepi?" Hassun nodded. "Are they well?"

He let his mind wander back to his vision of the two of them as he had seen them just after Reb had killed Reuben Washburn. "Yes - I believe them to be very happy together. I did not get to speak to Donoma Chepi, but Reb... Koko Kanti... asked me to assure her family that things are good for them."

"Will they be coming home soon?"

Hassun shook his head. "I do not know; she did not say."

Litonya nodded her acceptance. "Thank you for sharing her news with us. It is good to know they are doing well in white man's world. As much as I would like to have them home, I do not want them to be miserable where they are."

Hassun nodded, but didn't reply. There was no way he was going to get into the complications that surrounded them. Hopefully, they would be home soon to explain things for themselves.


Mordecai Washburn crumpled the telegram in his hands and looked at the cowboy who'd had the misfortune of being the messenger. "Get. Out." He growled between clenched teeth before turning to look out the window of his large spread.

He'd worked long and hard to own so much, buying out those he could for as little as he could manage, then squeezing out and stealing from the rest. Now he owned thousands of acres that had once been part of the People's land that they had roamed freely. Bit by bit he was committed to taking it all... killing those who resisted and taking what was left for his own devices.

Fortunately, the Army tended to be on his side - or that had been while his sons had been part of it. Now though....

He looked at the telegram he held in his hands again - not the official missive. No, this came from one of the few spies he had left at the fort where his sons had been stationed until just recently - until their deaths, he corrected himself. And they hadn't even died in battle.

Reuben dead. STOP. Killed in gunfight Reb Stone. STOP. Advise. STOP.

He stood from his chair and crossed to the cabinets that held his gun collection. It was time to take care of Reb Stone himself.

Chapter XXXVI

"So, are you going to tell me the story of how Black found us or was this a clever diversion on your part?" Donoma asked as they lay curled up together in the middle of the small bed. She let her hands trace over Koko's skin, taking the time to examine her recently healed scars.

Koko chuckled at the light touch running up and down her belly. "That tickles," she confessed, linking their hands together. She blew out a breath. "You have to understand how much I missed the People when I left. Even taking you out of the picture, I still missed them fiercely - they gave me and my Nahko'e a home when we were without and I was alone... something I had never been. When Black chose me, I spent a lot of time with him, training him to be a warhorse. I am not certain why, except that it gave me a sense of purpose."

"I am glad you had him, warrior, and I'm glad you took the time to teach him. He saved my life."

"And mine as well, ka'eskone. I would not have survived without you... not once I knew...." clenching her fingers around Donoma's in reaction, stopping just short of hurting her.

"He saved you twice then, Nutta. Because he saved your life when he brought you home to me."

"In more ways than one, ka'eskone," moving her free hand to stroke Donoma's cheek. "When I started chasing outlaws, it took me out into the Plains more often than not. And when we were close enough to see the People, Black and I would always spend some time doing just that - watching without being seen. And he would listen to me talk about home and the People... and you."

"How many times, Koko? How often were you close?" Donoma asked, her ire sparking again at the thought of the time they had wasted.

"Often enough that Black understood that it was home for me despite living somewhere else. Enough that he recognized the scent of the People." Donoma blew out a breath and sat up. Koko eased up, feeling Donoma's upset clearly. "Ka'eskone?"

"I am angry, warrior - not at you... at us. I think about what we lost... how easily it would have been for us to have never been together and it makes me crazy."

Koko wrapped her arms around Donoma and leaned into the smaller body before leaning back and pulling Donoma into her. "Do not think of the time we missed, ka'eskone; instead think of the time we have left to live together." She sighed. "It makes me angry too... to know that my decision to leave instead of talking to you first caused the rift between us. But I cannot change it - I have to move forward. I am simply glad Black was smarter than I was."

"As am I, warrior. But I am thankful you were wise enough to show him where home really was." Donoma shifted until she was tucked under Koko's chin and able to see her profile if she tilted her head just right. "How long will Hassun be gone?" she asked in a complete change of subject.

Koko shrugged behind her. "I cannot say for certain, but I believe it will be at least two weeks... half a moon. If the People are on track to reach the summer camp in time for the festival, they are at least a week's worth of hard travel from here... possibly more. And he has to do the same in reverse to return. Why?"

"Do we have to stay here to wait for him?"

"What? No, ka'eskone! I have no intention of being stuck in this town for that long. I would have to do something drastic. The nosey old women here would drive me to it."

"Why? Why would they drive you to do something drastic? Could you not simply ignore them?"

"I have tried that, ka'eskone. It was not very successful. Besides, the fact is they would come after you and we both know I would never stand for that." Her eyes twinkled in merriment remembering the single occasion it had happened with the People, knowing Donoma would follow her train of thought.


The day had started out innocently enough. Koko and the other warriors had gone out early to scout the area around the encampment. One of the other tribes had warned them of the encroaching white man and they had wanted to see things for themselves. Donoma did not go - she and Koko had spoken about it at length the night before and despite Donoma's desire to accompany her warrior, she understood the risk was too great. It didn't make her happy, though, and Rae'l and Litonya had their hands full keeping the young seer occupied.

It was after dark when the warriors returned, grim-faced and agitated. Donoma ran to meet Koko, only to be intercepted by one of the older unattached girls in the tribe.

"Go away, little girl. This is not for your eyes and ears." She pushed Donoma aside and was the first to meet the warriors, wrapping her hands around Koko's arm possessively. Koko stopped walking and the warriors around her did the same, anxious to see the outcome of such a display.

Koko searched for Donoma, seeing her picking herself up off the ground where the older girl had shoved her and crossing her arms over her chest glaring. Deliberately, she removed the hand that was clutching her arm and dropped it with a sneering look.

"You do not treat Donoma Chepi with such disrespect. Her place is at my side," Koko added, raising her voice so all could hear her declaration. She held out her hand and Donoma dropped her hands to her side before moving forward to accept it.

The other girl put her hands on her hips and jutted her chin out defiantly. "She's a *child*. You deserve more than a *child* for companionship!"

"I deserve to choose the companionship I would like to have, Norita. She is my warrior advisor and my best friend, and she expects nothing from me except my friendship in return. I prefer her company."

Donoma stepped forward. "I may be a child, Norita, but I know better than to go where I am not wanted." The warriors listening felt their eyes grow big and their mouths drop open, but no one moved. Donoma had never been so aggressive before, but never had anyone been foolish enough to try to come between her and Koko so openly either.

"Then why do you stay with the People, Donoma Chepi?" came the girl's scathing retort. "You have never been wanted here. You are not even one of us."

"THAT'S ENOUGH!" Koko roared, drawing the attention of the entire encampment. "I warned you not to disrespect Donoma Chepi, Norita. I will speak to Takoda and Odahingum of your contempt for such a valued member of the tribe and ask for your banishment."

"You cannot be serious. Koko Kanti... she is a child! I was merely offering you a more reasonable alternative."

Donoma laughed, the sound causing those around her to do the same, even if she hadn't delivered her joke yet. After a moment, Donoma sobered and looked Norita squarely in the eye. "Norita," she said calmly and sincerely, "you will never be a reasonable alternative where Koko Kanti is concerned. You do not care about her... only the prestige and honor she would bring to you as a mate. She deserves better - she deserves to find love and happiness with one who will love her... not just who and what she is. And you deserve someone who will appreciate you for who you are as well... and not just what you will do for them."

"My daughter speaks truth, Norita - and she speaks wisely," Takoda said as he approached them through the milling crowd. "Do not discount her words because of her age or who she is or because it is not what you want to hear. Listen and heed her words."

"And if I do not?" Norita asked with a snarl, marring her pretty face.

"The elders and I will seriously consider Koko Kanti's request for banishment or relocation to another tribe. We will not tolerate such discord here."

"I see," she ground out.

"I hope you do, Norita. You are a valued member of the tribe as well."

"Just not as important as Donoma Chepi or Koko Kanti - is that right?"

Takoda didn't answer her question. Instead he cocked his head at her thoughtfully and put a hand to his lips. "Think about it, Norita. Why did you feel the need to make such a public showing of perceived ownership? Did it accomplish what you hoped it would?"

Without a word he turned and headed back to the encampment and the warriors followed him silently. Koko and Donoma exchanged glances and then Koko extended her hand. Donoma accepted the offer and the two turned together to walk out onto the Plains without a backwards glance - away from the direction the warriors has just come. Norita watched them go before heading back to the camp. She had plans to make.


"I wonder whatever happened to Norita," Donoma mused.

"I do not know, ka'eskone. I cannot believe she would have survived very long on her own out on the Plains. She had no knowledge of how to hunt or fight or...."

"I know, but it saddens me to think I might have inadvertently driven her to her death."

"You cannot think that way, Donoma. She is responsible for the choices she made, as are we all responsible for our own choices. Those choices shape who we are and how we live. Besides, she was not the first who tried to come between us, and Honaw survived just fine."

Donoma snickered. "He should have known better than to tease. He lived with me my whole life until he joined with Gaagii."

"He did it on a dare, ka'eskone. I found out after the fact. Keez and your hestatanemos wanted to see if it would stir you up."

"I guess they got their answer."

Koko laughed. "Three times, actually. You let Honaw have it, I let Honaw have it and then he did the same to them, except he beat them up.

"Really?" At Koko's nod, Donoma chuckled. "Well that would explain why they went out of their way to avoid me for the longest time after that." Donoma remembered the day clearly.


"Donoma Chepi - it is time you give up this foolishness of being a warrior advisor to Koko Kanti. She is not solely your responsibility, nor are you hers. It is time you give up this foolishness."

"Honaw, she is my warrior protector and I am her warrior advisor - we swore an oath to one another. I will share my knowledge and friendship with those who seek it, but do not mock or make light of what is between Koko and me."

"You were a child, Donoma and it has been seven full cycles since she came to us. Surely you can release one another of that promise after such a long time. And what of those that want to cultivate a more personal relationship with Koko? She is growing into a woman, Donoma."

Donoma's eyes glowed from within and Honaw took a step back. He had meant it as a joke... a bit of teasing put up to him by his friends and hestatanemos. But Donoma didn't see it as such and he was afraid he was going to end up badly burned because of his foolishness.

"If Koko Kanti wishes to be released from her oath to me, she has but to ask, Honaw. I would never hold her to something that makes her unhappy, but I would prefer that she come to me herself instead of sending you to do it for her," she added, turning away before he could see the tears in her eyes. He reached out and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder.

"Donoma, I was only teasing you. Koko Kanti knows nothing of this."

"Why would you tease me about this, Honaw? You know Koko is my best friend."

Honaw shrugged. "I do not know, ka'eskone. Perhaps because I wish I had what you and Koko share?" He sighed. "Maybe we are all a little jealous."

"You know if Koko learns of this...."

Honaw swallowed hard. "I know... and it would be no more than we would deserve."

Donoma studied him for a long moment. "Leave me now, Honaw. I need to think."


"He was on edge for days waiting for you to do something... until he finally confessed to me what he had done. I think he was glad for the fight that followed. It gave him closure."

Donoma snorted. "Was *that* why you fought then? I thought it was some sort of a warrior ritual, especially after you threw him in the river." Koko nodded. "It is a good thing he told you."

"Why is that, ka'eskone?"

"Because I was going to make him wait until he exploded. It is nice to know it worked."

"You are brutal, Donoma Chepi. I am glad you are on my side." She chuckled. "I would almost remain here to watch you make the old women in this town twitch because of who and what you are. But I would never expose you to the vitriolic diatribe they are prone to spew without warning. I would have to kill them all. And while I do not think it would be a great loss as far as the human race is concerned, I have no desire to become an outlaw either."

"So we will go home tomorrow?"

"We will go home tomorrow. Hassun knows how to find me if there is anything I need to know immediately. And for anything that will wait, we will come back to town again in the next moon. I promised Kitty and Big Mama, and they will not let us get by without keeping that promise. I think you made quite an impression on them, ka'eskone."

"I like them, Koko. They seem like good people."

"Once you staked your claim," Koko teased.

Donoma rolled her eyes. "We have established that I am possessive where you are concerned. I do not see that changing for a while, warrior. It has been a problem my whole life."

Koko smiled and shifted them until she was spooned behind Donoma. Then she cocooned the smaller woman to her. "In case you have not noticed, ka'eskone, I have never objected to that possessive streak of yours. I find I like belonging to you - I always did. My Nahko'e found it amusing, though she never said so to me aloud."

"How do you know if she did not say?"

Koko laughed, shaking both of them. "She was my Nahko'e, ka'eskone. How do they let you know something when they want you to know without saying a word? For that matter, how do they know things when we do not tell them anything?"

Donoma thought about Koko's words, then joined her laughter. "You make a good point, Nutta. I know there were many times that my Nahko'e seemed to know far more than she was ever told, especially where the actions of my hestatanemos were concerned." She shook her head. "I am not certain she ever knew quite how to deal with me. My Neho'e usually took that responsibility."

"Mine did as well... until his death. Then my Nahko'e had to do it all." Koko stopped and took a deep breath. "I still miss them."

Donoma shifted until she could cup Koko's face in her hands. "You always will, Koko Kanti. But I take comfort in knowing that they are looking out for us."

Koko smiled. "As long as they know when to look away," she proclaimed, then leaned down and captured Donoma's lips for a long moment. Donoma rubbed their noses together.

"Somehow, I do not think that is a problem. The People try to respect one another's privacy."

"Thank the Great Spirit for that," Koko said before reclaiming Donoma's mouth.


Honiahaka and Rae'l turned away from their children when Donoma rubbed their noses together. They smiled.

"It is nice to be missed, but I am glad they have each other."

Honiahaka nodded thoughtfully. "As am I, Nutta. I believe they will need their combined strength and the love they share to see them through the coming storm." Rachel turned to him and wrapped her hands in his shirt.

"You know something?"

"I suspect something. I have been watching Mordecai Washburn. He could be trouble."

"Our nahtona lives for trouble. She always has, Honiahaka. You know this."

He shook his head. "Not like this, Nutta. When she looks for trouble, she tries to be ready for it. I am afraid she will not see this coming."

They were silent as they turned their attention to Mordecai Washburn.


Mordecai Washburn carefully checked his guns once more. They had all been cleaned and oiled and were loaded in preparation for the fight he expected to get once he caught up to Reb Stone. When he was satisfied they were ready and there was nothing more he could do, he left his office and went to his room to pack his saddlebags. It had been a while since he'd been forced to leave the comfort of his ranch house and he had no desire to suffer while he rode across the Plains. But it was obvious that his personal touch was needed to take care of things now.

Business had fallen to nothing and that was unacceptable. And with Reuben's death, it was time he stepped up and resumed the reins he should never have given up. He was convinced his two sons would still be alive if he had kept a tighter grip on the operation.

He sighed. There was no help for that now. All he could do from here was go forward and hope to control the damage that had already been done.

Satisfied he had all he needed for his unexpected trip, Washburn turned and headed to the dining room. He was ready for a hot meal, and it would be a little while before he got another chance to have one.

His foreman came in when he was finished, assuring him that his entourage was ready and the ranch would be taken care of in his absence. Mordecai nodded his appreciation, then extinguished the lamps and walked to his bedroom. Tomorrow was going to be a long day.

Chapter XXXVII

It was quite the little Posse that formed up around Mordecai Washburn as the sun peeked over the horizon early the next morning. He had several mercenaries at his beck and call to handle any kind of emergency that arose. Now they were packed and ready to move out to finally do something about Reb Stone. She'd been a thorn in his side damn long enough.

"So what's the plan, boss?"

"The plan?" Washburn snorted with contempt. "The plan is to take care of Reb Stone. She's an abomination and a troublemaker. It's time to rid the world of her filth."

The men rolled their eyes as they mounted their horses. They had heard Washburn's rhetoric more than once, and it was frankly a little old and somewhat annoying. He felt that way about everyone who was different from him... including them, but he was powerful and paid well so they let it go. Eventually, someone new would come along who could offer them more and Washburn would be history, but for now, he was their best option.

"Yeah, we got that part, boss," Riggins, the de facto leader spoke. "But do you have a plan on specifically how you'd like her to be taken care of?"

Washburn shook his head and clicked to his horse, knowing the entourage would fall in place as they progressed. "No," he admitted. "Not yet. I think we need to get there and see what we can find out. Then we'll make our plans accordingly. The way things have been going recently, she won't even do me the courtesy of being there when we arrive."

Riggins nodded. "I wonder what caused Reuben to go after her. I thought he was going to wait...." cutting his eyes towards the elder Washburn and wondering if he would get an answer.

Mordecai didn't respond. He wasn't going to admit that he had threatened Reuben to take care of the situation or he would see to it personally. He was seeing to it personally now, and that was enough. He never thought his eldest son would have been stupid enough to call her out like that. He should have ambushed her.

Riggins sat back in his saddle and pulled the brim of his hat down lower over his eyes. They had days of traveling to do - there was plenty of time. He'd work on worming it out of Washburn. It wasn't that it particularly mattered... Riggins simply wanted to know.

The caravan settled into a steady pace as the sun slowly moved up into the sky. It was going to be a long day.


Kitty and the girls dragged themselves out of bed early to see Donoma and Koko off. Kitty had tried to convince them to stay longer, but it was to no avail. Koko and Donoma were anxious to leave town and given their experience during their brief stay, no one could rightly blame them. So they were packed and ready to go first thing and the girls came downstairs to say a very short goodbye before returning to their beds for more sleep.

"I'm glad you came into town, Reb. It was lovely to meet the woman who holds your heart," taking Koko's hand and squeezing it gently. "It's nice to see you so happy - gives the rest of us hope." Koko blushed but she met Donoma's gaze with a smile. Kitty grinned at the two of them. "You are so good together." Kitty released Koko's hand and opened her arms to Donoma. "Do you think I could maybe get a hug?"

Donoma's eyes got big at the request but she stepped forward into Kitty's embrace. The hug was over in a bare moment, but Kitty's smile was huge. Koko nodded her head ever so briefly in approval. It was a giant accomplishment for both Donoma and Kitty and Kitty was proud to have earned Donoma's trust.

Big Mama came bustling out of the kitchen holding a wrapped bundle which she extended out to them. "Jus' a li'l sumpin' for de road," she explained. Koko accepted it, then gave Mama a brief hug. She stepped back and waited for Big Mama to speak to Donoma.

Big Mama took Donoma in a hug, not giving her a chance to refuse and almost smothering her in the process. She kissed the top of the blonde head and smiled as she released her hold on Donoma. "You'uns be careful goin' home now, chile. We wan' ya'll to be comin' back real soon."

"Thank you, Big Mama. We will," Donoma replied in slow, stilting English. "It was good to meet all of you as well." She stepped back, running into Koko with a thump. Donoma looked back with a smile and Koko grinned before motioning to the horses with an arched brow. Donoma nodded and they mounted their horses, then halted at a cry from up the street. Kitty remained, as did Big Mama, when Stephen Murphy arrived. He blew out a winded breath.

"You two take care, Stone," he said when he could speak. "I expect Old Man Washburn'll be heading this way and chances are he'll be out for vengeance. We haven't heard anything which is what makes me think that." He paused. "Gotta wonder why him and his boys seem so fixated on you. Even your being a woman and a bounty hunter ain't enough to explain all that."

"Maybe not, but it's just another reason for us to hightail it outta here, Murph. No sense in bringing more trouble to the folks of this town than necessary. Most of them have enough to deal with with their own petty hatred and bigotry. I wouldn't want to add to that any more than I already have," she added with a smirk.

"Seems like you could teach 'em a thing or two if you were of a mind."

"Probably not, Kitty. Some folks are too set in their ways to see beyond their own prejudice. You know that as well or better than any of us."

"You should come to People," Donoma commented unexpectedly.

Kitty blinked, then smiled. "Thank you, Donoma Chepi. That is probably the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me," accepting it for the compliment it was intended to be. "One day I might just take you up on that."

"Keep your eyes open, Reb," Murphy cautioned again. "I really don't like...."

"Koko watch for Washburn - Donoma watch out for Koko."

Donoma's pronouncement made everyone smile. "Thanks, Mrs. Stone," Murphy replied sincerely. "I feel better knowing Reb's got someone watching out for her."

Koko glared at him. "I've been looking out for myself for a while now, ya know."

"No longer, Koko Kanti. Donoma Chepi look out for you now," Donoma stated unequivocally. Her stare was equally intense and she met Koko's blue eyes squarely.

"As long as we are together, ka'eskone," Koko assured, shifting back to her native tongue, "I would expect no less. I may be the protector, but you have always taken care of me as well." She cupped Donoma's face in her hand, but the clearing of a nearby throat brought their attention back to the present and their surroundings. Koko looked at Kitty inquiringly.

"You two are cuter than two bugs in a rug," Kitty said, though her pronouncement made Donoma's nose crinkle up in disgust. "But I'm not altogether sure you wanna be sharing that image with some of the folks in this town."

"I don't rightly care what the folks in this town think, Kitty. I never have. But you're right - they don't deserve to share in what Donoma and I have between us." She turned to the marshal. "You'll let me know what you find out or if you hear anything I need to be aware of?"

"Of course, Reb... you don't even have to ask."

"Thanks, Murph. We'll be in touch."

"Come back soon," Kitty commanded. "Big Mama and I'd love to visit more."

"We'll see what we can do," Koko stated and then she and Donoma headed their horses towards the open plain, heedless of the many eyes that followed them down the street before the disappeared into the horizon. Kitty, Murphy and Big Mama watched them go before they all turned back to the saloon.

"I gots me a bad feelin' 'bout all dis," Mama said solemnly. "Them young'uns gots a hard road ahead of dem iff'n Old Man Washburn comes a lookin' for 'em."

"We'll keep our eyes and ears out, Mama. I have a feelin' this could get ugly for the lot of us before it's all over."

Murphy nodded his head in agreement. "I'm afraid you might be right there, Kitty. Now I've got work to do and you probably need a little more rest. Something about this whole situation's not sitting right with me and I need to find out what it is."

Kitty snorted. "The whole situation's all wrong as far as I'm concerned, but I think I know what you mean. Hopefully you'll figure it out in time." She leaned up and kissed his grizzled cheek. "I'll see you later, Stephen." Then she and Big Mama headed indoors. Murphy walked back down towards his office, letting his mind run over the facts he had, trying to place what was bothering him about the whole scenario. Something just didn't make sense.


"So what did you think of your first trip into white man's world, ka'eskone?" Koko asked later that evening when they were curled up together snugly in their cabin home.

"I think it is very loud, and I am glad I do not have to live there all the time. It would make my head hurt incessantly." She hesitated. "Perhaps that is why so many of them are so cranky - they must be in constant pain to be forced to live so."

"I suppose it is a possibility, Donoma, though I believe much of it is learned behavior. We do the same thing... just not to the same degree." Donoma cocked her head in question. "There are tribes we go to war with simply because we have been taught that they are the enemy."

"Are you saying we are like the white man, Koko Kanti?"

"Oh no, ka'eskone. We are very different from the white man in many ways... in most ways, if the truth be known. We live differently, think differently, believe differently. But there are similarities as well. I just do not think that the similarities will ever be enough to overcome the differences until men learn to see them first. And I do not think that will happen in our lifetimes... if at all."

"Is that not a pessimistic view of the world, warrior?"

"I do not believe it is, ka'eskone. It is an honest one. The world would be a much different place if we did not see skin color or gender or belief before we saw human being. But always it has been this way - we see what is different and we exploit what is perceived to be weakness. In the white culture that means conversion to their way of thinking and destruction of anything that does not fit their mold of society."

"So it is all right that I did not particularly care for the white man's world? Now do not misunderstand... I was glad for the chance to meet Miss Kitty and Big Mama and Stephen Murphy. But I did not care for the staring we endured. It was unnerving."

Koko smiled, and gently stroked Donoma's back, feeling her relax into the light touch. "Would you like to know the ironic part of that, ka'eskone? The ones doing the staring were more unnerved than you were - hence the reason for their staring. They were trying to figure you out without looking you in the eye. They are certain you could hex them if they did so."

Donoma tilted her head up to look at Koko incredulously. "If I could do that, Koko, we would rule the world and the white man's influence would not be so widespread."

Koko laughed at the seriousness with which Donoma delivered her decree and Donoma was quick to join in nthe merriment. "So true, ka'eskone... but what would we do with the world?"

"We tried that once, as I recall; did not really care for it then either." Then she blinked and looked at Koko in confusion. "What did I just say?"

"Nothing I can disagree with at the moment." Koko blew out a thoughtful breath. "I thought they were simply strange dreams."

"Perhaps they are, warrior. They just seem so real sometimes." They gazed at one another for several heartbeats before Donoma blinked and put her head back down over Koko's heartbeat. "I suppose this is something we will need to talk about."

"Perhaps," Koko conceded. "But it will come in our way and in a time of our choosing. Until then, I think it is safe to say we have shared many lives together. Consequently, it could be one reason behind my warrior aptitude and your gift of sight."

"It would go a long way to explaining much. Do you believe we are destined then?"

Koko thought about the question, giving it due deliberation. "I believe we are meant for one another, but that we make the choice to allow it to happen. Had I not ended up in the winter encampment, we would still be separated by my misguided choice. I can honestly say I would have stayed alone, though. There would have been no one else in my life."

"Mine either, warrior. I would have lived alone by choice. So maybe it is a little of both - choice and destiny."

Koko tightened her embrace and kissed the top of the blonde head tucked under her chin. "I am glad we made the choice to embrace our destiny then, ka'eskone. I am very happy."

"As am I, warrior mine... as am I."


It was slow going across the prairie. The spring rains had made everything muddy and the horses weren't terribly thrilled having to traverse through it constantly. It was wearing on both horse and rider and it caused Riggins to call for an early halt. Washburn immediately looked to him for an explanation.

"There's no point in traveling until we're all ready to drop, boss," Riggins said patiently. "We have all the time we need to get there and take care of Stone. But it'd be in our best interests to make sure we all get there. The horses are tired and we've made good progress. We'll head out again early tomorrow morning."

"Maybe we should wait until a little later in the day when things have had a chance to dry out a bit more," acknowledging the wisdom of Riggins' decision without actually having to say so.

"We'll see how it looks in the morning, boss. You may be right," knowing it would make little difference but not seeing a reason to point that out to Washburn at the moment. It'd been a lot of years since Mordecai Washburn had ridden any sort of trail that didn't end with him in his own comfortable bed at night, and Riggins figured he would learn as they went.

They staked their horses a short distance from themselves, allowing plenty of space between them so there was plenty of grass for each animal. Then they spread out into a circle, clearing a bit in the center to set up a firepit and placing their bedrolls around it. After that, it was a matter of waiting until they could sleep to pass the time until the could hit the trail again.


Murphy sat in his office, thinking over what Ginger had shared with him, Reb and the Colonel the day before. Something about what she had said didn't make much sense. She indicated that men in general and soldiers in particular had a tendency to spill secrets when in the presence of Kitty's girls. And while he had no doubt that it was true, what she had shared with them hadn't been much of a secret.

He let his mind review what Ginger had said.

"They were out looking for horses under orders, but Leroy was looking for more. At least that is what the soldiers that were traveling with him believed."

"But what was he looking for?" Ginger crinkled her forehead. Spencer sighed. "What was Leroy looking for aside from the horses? He was only under orders to find horses."

Ginger shrugged. "I dunno. They haven't said. Just that he seemed to have his own agenda. I got the feeling they thought it had something to do with Black."

"But you don't know for certain."

"No. It's not like I can force them to share... especially when they talk in their sleep."

Spencer leaned back in his chair. The information was less revealing than he had hoped for. A look at Murphy and Stone showed nothing at all in their expressions, and Spencer wondered if they were as frustrated as he felt. He blew out a breath and excused himself, citing a need to get back to the fort to let Mordecai Washburn know of the death of his eldest son.

Murphy came back to the present with a sigh. He was convinced Ginger knew more than she was telling. The question was - who was she hiding the information from... him, Reb or Spencer. He looked at the clock on the wall, surprised to see it was nearly lunch time. He decided to take a walk back down to the saloon. Talking to Kitty and Big Mama might help clear his mind; it might at least give him a place to start finding out what Ginger really knew.

He walked slowly down the sidewalk, greeting the shopkeepers and merchants along the way. Several of them asked after Reb and Donoma, but as far as he could tell, it was mostly benign curiosity. None of the old biddies bothered him, making it a point to pass on the opposite side of the street. Murphy just chuckled as did most of the men he spoke to.

Finally, he reached the saloon and walked around to the back, knocking on the door and waiting for Big Mama to invite him in. He doffed his hat and took a seat at her table at her beckoning, folding his hands and waiting for her to put a plate of food in front of him. Then he still waited for her to join him. Instead she motioned to him to eat.

"Ya knows I cain't stop in de middle ob lunch, Marshal. Wha's on ya min'?"

Kitty walked in about then, brushing a kiss to Murphy's temple and accepting a plate of food from Big Mama. She took a seat and picked up a fork, digging in and waiting for Murphy to speak.

"You both know I talked to Ginger yesterday, but I got the feeling she wasn't completely honest with me. But I don't know if she didn't want to talk to me or if was Reb and Spence she was uncomfortable with."

"Maybe you should ask her, Stephen. I don't think you're the one she's uncomfortable with."

He sighed and grabbed his own fork, chewing several mouthfuls thoughtfully before taking a sip of coffee. "Will you ask her, Kitty? I think she will be honest with you, and I really do think she knows more than she was willing to share."

"I'll see what I can find out, Stephen, but I'm not going to force her to share if she doesn't want to. We hear a lot in this line of work - not all of it's pleasant."

"I know, Kitty. But I think this is important."

Kitty nodded. "I'll do my best and let you know when I hear something." She got up and took her empty plate to the sink, washing it clean before returning upstairs. Murphy watched her go, then turned his attention back to Big Mama. He arched an eyebrow at her, but she just shook her head and went back to cooking. He finished his food without another word, then cleaned up, kissed Mama's cheek and headed back to his office. There was still work to do.


"You have been very quiet, ka'eskone. Is something troubling you?"

"I am somewhat confused, Koko. I do not understand why Big Mama's language is so different from everyone else's... even mine... nor do I comprehend how her skin became so dark. None of the People I have ever seen have had skin as dark as hers is."

Koko smiled, recalling her own first reaction to Big Mama... and everything that followed that meeting. "Big Mama is a runaway slave, Donoma. Her Nahko'e's Nahko'e was brought to this country on a slave ship from somewhere very far away. Because she was born a slave, she was never allowed to learn how to read and write. It was considered a crime for her to do so."

"That is terrible, warrior mine. Who would make such a rule?"

"The same men who would try to force the People onto reservations. Those who see us as less than them... less than human."

"Why? Who are they to judge? Who are they to make such decisions for anyone?"

Koko shook her head. "I do not know, ka'eskone. I only know that they do."

"So has she learned to read since she ran away from those who would make her a slave?"

"A little," Koko replied with a soft smile. "It is very difficult for her. But her sons Elijah and Thomas both learned. They went back east to go to school."

"Did you teach them, Koko Kanti? Did you teach Big Mama's sons to read and write the white man's tongue - as Rae'l did for me?"

"I did, ka'eskone. I felt they deserved the opportunity to be more than they were being allowed and they did well. She is hoping for their soon return. They will have better opportunities here - despite the bigotry that is prevalent. It is apparently much worse to the east. I tried teaching Big Mama as well, but it was very slow going for her and that made it frustrating. Besides, as she put it, it took too much time away from her work and she needs the money she makes at the saloon to support herself."

"Has she no warrior of her own to protect her? Or no advisor to look after her interests?"

"She had a husband - he was unable to get away when she escaped from slavery. She has no idea if he still lives."

"That is terrible, warrior mine. Such a heavy burden to bear."

"Yes, as we both know from experience. I would not wish that sort of separation on anyone. Perhaps in time her man will return to her. And if not, her sons should return to her soon. That will be a happy day for her."

"As will our return to the People for Litonya and Takoda, no matter how brief the visit."

Donoma's wording made Koko's eyes widen and she turned to look at her expression, which remained serene. "You have been thinking?" she finally asked.

Donoma shrugged. "A little. I am not convinced it would be in the best interests of the People for us to return to them on a permanent basis. As you have said, until and unless you retire, there will always be those who will hunt you down to avoid their own capture. And even then, as long as we remain in the area, there is always a chance someone will bring their fight with you to them."

"That is all very true, ka'eskone. What would you propose?"

"I do not know yet, warrior. I do like the home you have created here...." Donoma let her thoughts trail off pensively. Koko picked up her sentence easily.

"But, it is still too close to the white man's civilization to be truly safe for us."

"Yes... exactly. And as much as I would like to remain for now, I do not believe it would ultimately satisfy either of us to stay here for an indefinite length of time."

"So where does that leave us?" Koko had already come to her own conclusions, but she was enjoying listening to Donoma think aloud. The horses ambled on as the sun continued moving overhead, the spring breeze keeping it on the cool side of comfortable.

"I think that depends on us, warrior. Do we want to put down roots here? Move somewhere else? Go back to the People? Or strike out on our own... go somewhere no one would find us - somewhere that even the People do not know of? There are many choices for us to consider."

"What would you like to do, ka'eskone? Not what you think I want or what would make the People or Kitty or anyone else we know happy, but you."

Donoma bit her lip thoughtfully as she deliberated the choices she had already laid out for Koko. "What I would like," she said after a few moments of silent riding, "is the ability to see the outcome of each choice." She smiled ruefully at Koko who gave her a sympathetic expression in return. "I know... that is not the way it works, but it does not keep me from wishing it was so."

"It would be nice. But it does not change the fact that this is something we need to decide for ourselves without guidance."

"How long should we remain here, Koko?"

"We move at our own whim, Donoma. The only thing keeping us here is us. However," she added, "I think it is safe to say that if Mordecai Washburn is coming into town to do more than retrieve Reuben's body - if he is coming to exact revenge for whatever injustice he believes has been perpetrated against his family - he will not let it go without a fight. If we do not face him here, he will follow us."

Donoma sighed. She had expected as much, but hearing it said brought a whole new level of reality. "Then we need to deal with Washburn before we make any sort of decision about the future. I have no desire to have that kind of threat hanging over us for the remainder of our lives."

"Nor do I, ka'eskone. We will hope Washburn is not as stupid as his sons, but I do not hold out much hope for that. Especially if they were doing something illegal."

"You believe that they are, though."

"Yes - it is the only thing that makes sense. Why else would they be so insistent that I was? Usually those who accuse have something to hide themselves."

"I hope that this is over with quickly then. I have no desire to live under this cloud any longer than is absolutely necessary. I am ready to simply live my life with you."

Koko's smile was wide and genuine. "As am I, Donoma." Then silence fell as they continued their journey home.


"You are sure of this Takoda?" Odahingum asked much later - after they had spoken at length with Hassun. "You are aware that we are more than half a moon's travel from the white man's world where Koko Kanti and Donoma Chepi have been living? That it will have been a full moon from the time Koko Kanti sent him to us that Hassun returns to them? What good can it do to put our clan in danger by accompanying him, Takoda?"

The shaman shook his head. "I cannot say for certain, my friend. I only know what the Great Spirit shows me."

The chieftain huffed. "It would be nice if for once the Great Spirit would speak plainly instead of with vague signs and warnings. Surely it would be easier for him as well."

Takoda snorted. "You sound much like my nahtona, Odahingum. She does not care for the vagueness nor the interpretations she is left to make from the visions she is given. She feels straightforwardness would be much more effective."

"I tend to agree," Odahingum said solemnly.

"So do I," Takoda confessed. "But we must work with those things we are given."

"And you feel we should move the People back towards the white man's territory instead of continuing on towards the summer camp?"

Takoda shook his head. "I cannot say with certainty, Odahingum. I think it might be best if we split the tribe - with some of the warriors and all the women and children continuing on to the summer camp. The rest could accompany Hassun back to the town to aid Koko and Donoma in whatever challenge the Great Spirit is sending their way."

"You believe this to be for the best? Even with the amount of time and travel involved for all parties?"

"I believe I was given the vision for a reason, but I am not convinced of anything yet. I only know that we must do something, for if we do nothing, the consequence could be dire for Donoma and Koko."

"Could be? Then you are unsure?"

"I am unsure," Takoda confirmed. "Nothing is clear and yet the feeling that the vision gives me is ominous... very disturbing."

"You do not believe they will survive without our assistance?"

Takoda shrugged, growing more and more frustrated. He had told Odahingum all he saw and yet the chief still questioned him. "I do not know, Odahingum. All that is clear is that they are in imminent danger. The rest...?" He shrugged again.

Odahingum thought about Takoda's words. "Very well. I will instruct a small party of warriors to accompany Hassun. Traveling by horseback, it should not take them as much time to reach Koko and Donoma as it would on foot. With luck, the warriors will arrive in plenty of time to be of some use to prevent whatever it is that threatens Koko Kanti and Donoma Chepi."

"Thank you, Odahingum. I believe that is a wise choice."

Odahingum sighed. "I hope so, Takoda... for all our sakes."


"Mr. Washburn?" Mordecai looked up into the face of the youngest cowboy along on this trip. He reminded the old man a little of his sons but it didn't garner him any sympathy. Washburn nodded and gestured for the young man to continue.

"I was just wondering how long we expect to be on the trail."

Washburn stared at the cowboy a while longer, smirking when he started to fidget under his penetrating gaze. "What's the matter, boy? You got a hot date back at the ranch house I need to know about? Or maybe you're looking forward to screwing some of those whores in town?"

"Yessir... something like that."

"Well, keep it in your pants, boy. It's gonna take us the better part of a week before we get to town. And then we've got business to attend to once we get there. There won't be screwing of any kind until Reb Stone is dead by my hand. You got it?"

The cowboy swallowed hard. "Yessir," the kid replied before swallowing again and turning to walk away from Washburn as rapidly as he could manage without actually running. Mordecai watched him go with a smirk on his face. Riggins walked over chuckling and squatted across the fire from Washburn. Mordecai arched an eyebrow at him.

"Sorry, boss. That was funny. In fairness, Harry's a good cowboy... as hardworking as they come, but he's young. Doesn't always think with his big head."

"He's lucky I remember being that young and stupid once. But remind him what happens to stupid cowboys."

"Will do, boss." Riggins cleared his throat. "Looks like we've got more bad weather coming in. We gonna push through it or try to wait it out?"

"We'll see how it looks in the morning, but I wanna push through as soon as possible. It's already going to be a week getting there without delays and I don't want this to take any longer than necessary. Stone deserves to be punished for what she did to my family and I intend to make her pay."

"And if she's not there?"

"In town? I don't expect her to be. According to what the boys said and my current sources, she no longer lives there. She only visits occasionally to speak to the marshal and visit Kitty," Washburn spat with revulsion. "Otherwise she is out chasing outlaws or living in her little log cabin. All we have to do is wait for her to come to us."

"So we're not gonna chase her down?"

"Hell, no! What would be the advantage to that? We can set up an ambush and wait for her to come to us. Then," he took aim and pulled an imaginary trigger. "She dies.. but *only* at my hand. Make sure the men understand that - they are there to contain her, but the killing shot is mine alone."

"All right, boss. I'll take care of it."

"See that you do, Riggins. I don't want any rash misunderstandings on that point. Because someone will pay for their disobedience if anyone other than me kills Stone. She owes me, and I'm going to collect - preferably slowly and painfully."

"Yessir, boss."

"Good. Now get out of here and leave me to my peace. We start out at daylight tomorrow if the weather is good."

"And if it's not?"

"We'll decide in the morning." Riggins nodded his head but didn't say another word. Instead, he rose and headed back to his own bedroll, hoping the storm that was coming held off until the morning. A good night's sleep would be appreciated. Tomorrow would bring new challenges to face - Riggins just wanted a bit of decent rest before being forced to meet them.


It had been slow all evening and Kitty had decided to call it a night. She gestured to Benny who nodded his understanding, then took Ginger by the hand and led her upstairs to her room. The other girls just watched, knowing the two women had a different relationship with one another than they shared with the rest of them. Besides, Kitty had been jumpy all evening - with a little luck, Ginger would be able to get her to relax.

Ginger followed Kitty into her room and waited for the older woman to shut the door before turning on her. "All right, Kitty... what's up? You've been twitchier than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, and I don't think it's got anything to do with what you and I normally do when we come up here together early like this either."

Kitty grimaced. "You're right, though there may be some of that later," she added with a rakish grin. Then her expression fell and she sighed. "What do you really know about the Washburns and what is goin' on? Stephen is convinced you know more than you were willin' to share with him and the others."

"So you're doin' the Marshal's dirty work now?" Ginger sneered, then immediately felt remorse at the hurt look that passed swiftly over Kitty's face. "I'm sorry, Kit. I'm tired and this whole situation has just creeped me out, ya know?"

"No, I don't, so why don't you tell me so I will?"

"The Washburns were horse thieves - head of a gang of 'em from what I could gather - only they were doin' it legally... skimmin' the best of them from the Army before the Army got ahold of 'em."

Kitty blinked rapidly as the words spilled forth from Ginger's lips. "What?? How do you know this, Ging? And why didn't you tell the Marshal when he asked?"

"My corporal, Max?" waiting for Kitty to nod her head in recognition. "He went out a lot with them huntin' for new herds. He said not near the horses they found ever made it into the Army corral. Said that somehow they always seemed to lose the best part of the herd a day or two out from the post to fellas who didn't seem to disturb whoever was on watch, and that generally, Leroy was the one watching when it happened."

"And he didn't feel the need to bring it up to someone? You didn't think you should share this with Stephen... or me?"

"Who was he gonna bring it up to, Kitty? Leroy was his commanding officer and Reuben was the next up in the chain of command. That's sorta like cutting off your nose to spite your face."

Kitty nodded in understanding. "Okay, I can accept that, but then why not tell Stephen?" coming back to part of her original question. "And why involve Reb? That last seems kinda like poking a bear with a stick - you know there's gonna be a bad reaction."

Ginger shrugged. "That I don't know, but I'm thinkin' she messed up their little operation more'n once by pickin' up certain outlaws. Somebody had to move them horses once they left the Army's care and odds are it wasn't law-abidin' citizens."

Kitty stared at Ginger in amazement. "How'd you figure all that out?"

"Talkin' to the Marshal got me to thinkin'. A lot of it is just speculatin' on my part at the moment, but it seems to sorta make sense."

"So why haven't you talked to the Marshal about this, Ginger?" Kitty asked in a fierce whisper, not wanting her voice to carry with her upset. "Why didn't you tell him this the other day when he and Reb were sitting right there waiting for you to tell them all this??"

Ginger turned burning eyes to Kitty. "Because the Colonel was sitting there with them. And I don't know him well enough to assume his guilt or innocence one way or the other. I was waiting for the Marshal to come see you so I could talk to him up here without raising suspicions!"

Kitty's ire calmed considerably with Ginger's explanation and she moved forward to take the other woman in a hug. "All right, sweetheart... I'm sorry. I wouldn't want anything to happen to you because of this... God knows. I just don't want to see anything happen to Reb either and I don't think Washburn's gonna let this lie this time."

"Probably not," Ginger agreed, holding on to Kitty and tucking her head beneath the other woman's chin absorbing the comfort she offered. "I got the feeling from Max that the old man was the one running things, so I'll bet he'll be here as quick as he can to take care of stuff." A rumble of thunder shimmied through the air. "With any luck, it'll take him a few extra days with this weather."

"And meanwhile we can make some plans of our own. But first," leading Ginger to her bed, "we need some rest. We'll worry about the rest tomorrow - there's nothing we can do til then without raisin' suspicions anyway."

"Nothin'?" Ginger asked with a wicked twinkle as she stripped down to her skivvies.

Kitty laughed and did the same, then blew out the lantern before crawling into bed behind her.

Chapter XXXIX

"You seem restless tonight, ka'eskone," Koko commented several days later. "Is something wrong?"

"I do not know, warrior. It is simply... I have never felt like this before."

"Getting used to being in one place is very different from what you have known all your life."

"Yes, it is. Even winter camp is not like this. I think the weather may be part of the problem. I do not remember seeing so much rain in so short a period of time. I have never spent so much time indoors when I was not ministering to the sick."

"Would you like me to be sick, ka'eskone, so you have something productive to do with your time?"

"No! If I never have to use those particular skills on you ever again, it will be too soon for me. I have done more than my share of caring for you that way and though I do not begrudge any of the time we spent together, I hate to see you suffer. Besides," she added with an impish twinkle in her green eyes, "you were always my worst patient."

Blue eyes widened and Koko's full bottom lip stuck out in what threatened to become a full-fledged pout. "Me?" she asked with mock offense. "How can you say that? I have always been the epitome of what a model patient should be." Donoma couldn't resist the impulse and soon she was shaking with laughter, though she covered her mouth to keep the giggles from escaping. Koko glared and crossed her arms over her chest. "You are mocking me."

"No, Nutta. I am telling you the truth. Do you not remember the first sickness you had after you and Rae'l came to the People?" Koko held Donoma's eyes, but she couldn't stop the blush that followed the question. Donoma smiled. "I see that you do."


It had been a dare and Koko had never been one to refuse a dare. It had been coming on to winter - not yet freezing, but well beyond the warmth of summer. Despite her acceptance into the tribe by Takoda and Odahingum, Koko was still the new kid and in some things, she still had a lot to prove to her peers.

This particular autumn day, the young warriors were out near a tributary whose origin they were unaware of. All they knew was that the water was chilly, even in the heat of mid-summer, so now it was downright frigid. The challenge was to swim the width of the river and back again - naked

The boys had thought to play a practical joke on Koko, stealing her clothes and forcing her to return to the encampment in nothing but her skin. Koko and a few of the others would swim while the rest took her clothes. What they had not counted on was the fierceness of Donoma Chepi or the shrillness of her voice when they approached her.

The swimmers were more than halfway across the water when Donoma's first cry rang out. Without hesitation, Koko turned back and headed for shore. Honaw, seeing her action, turned to follow her, knowing there had to be a good reason for Donoma to scream and an even better one for Koko to give up the challenge to take care of it.

She stepped onto shore, naked as the day she was born, backlit by the sun which highlighted the strength of her young body and the gentle curves she was only just beginning to develop. The boys who had caused Donoma's fit, stepped away from Donoma, moving them out of Koko's immediate reach. They couldn't stop staring at Koko, though, and she felt her hackles rise.

Donoma ran to her, jumping into her arms and wrapping tiny arms around Koko's neck. Koko completed the embrace without taking her eyes from the boys that caused the reaction.

"Do you not have somewhere else you need to be?" she growled, blue eyes blazing at them. "Where is your honor, that you terrorize a five-year-old child?"

"It had nothing to do with her," the bravest among them stated.

"I see," Koko ground out. "So she was screaming because...?"

"How should I know?" the boy answered diffidently with a shrug, though his eyes darted from side to side. "Maybe she just likes the attention she gets from you when she does."

Koko's eyes narrowed and she set Donoma gently onto the ground. "Stay with Honaw, ka'eskone. I will be right back." Before Donoma could move, Koko had leaped on the interloper and started pounding him into the ground. Some of his mates jumped in to help but found themselves the recipients of their own blows, courtesy of Honaw and his compatriots.

Unfortunately, in the melee, Koko lost sight of the reason Donoma had been so vocal and while she and the others were busy, one boy snuck out of the fighting and gathered up her clothing and threw it in the water. Donoma gave chase, but her legs were too short and she wasn't fast enough. She did manage to kick him in the shins after the deed was done - the boy couldn't resist the opportunity to laugh and gloat over his perceived victory. His howl of pain cut through the grunting and groaning and everyone stopped fighting at the sound.

He raised a hand to Donoma who stared back at him without flinching, hands on her hips.

"Do not be stupid," Keezheekoni cut in. "The punishment you'd receive for completing that action would be far greater than any satisfaction you might garner from it."

The boy snorted and looked around nervously, realizing that even his cohorts' expressions contained a measure of disgust. His eyes met Koko's and he flinched at the raw fury directed towards him. He dropped his hand and stepped away from Donoma.

"It does not matter," he sneered. "We won," looking back at the water that was gently pulling Koko's clothing downstream.

Koko snarled, then stiff-armed him before she jumped back into the frigid water to retrieve her clothes. It was a shock to her overly warm system, the fight having chased away any residual chill, but she kept gamely at it until everything had been recovered.

By the time she reached the shore again, her friends were dressed and Honaw extended a hand to help her out. She accepted his hand, her water-laden clothes making it difficult to say the least. The rest of the pack had moved some distance away, separate yet still close by. Koko spared them a glowering glance, then her attention was taken by Donoma.

"Are you all right, Koko Kanti?"

"I am fine, ka'eskone. I am just a little wet."

Donoma allowed her green eyes to track the length of Koko's body, lingering on the dripping bundle of leather she held in one hand and the wet hair that ran rivulets of water down her back. She raised an eyebrow and Koko had to bite her lip to keep from commenting on the cute factor Donoma had going on with that attempt at a grown-up look.

"If that is a little, warrior, I do not want to know what very wet is. I would drown."

"I would not allow that to happen, Donoma. Who would be my warrior advisor then?"

A brisk wind blew across the Plains and Koko couldn't stop the involuntary shiver that ghosted through her body. She looked down sadly at her wet garments, then with a shrug, wrung them out as best as she was able. Honaw stepped up beside her to help, and soon they went from sopping to merely damp. Koko slipped them on with a grimace and together, they all headed for home.

Koko was shaking with chills long before they arrived and only the clenching of her jaw kept her teeth from chattering. When they reached the encampment, Koko went immediately to her own home and Donoma Chepi followed without question. The rest went to their own fires, much more subdued than when they left.

The elder and other adults wondered what had happened, but figured they would soon learn the truth. Rachel left her place at Litonya's fire and slowly limped back to her own dwelling, curious to hear Koko's side of whatever story had obviously taken place.

Koko stripped off her wet clothing as soon as she was inside and Donoma struggled to awkwardly wrap the warmest fur around her chilled body. Koko was just laying down on her pallet when Rachel stepped through the opening. "Koko Kanti?"

"I am all right, Nahko'e. Just a little cold," which was followed by a tremendous sneeze. Rachel reached out and put a cool hand on Koko's forehead.

"Koko, what happened? You are burning up." But Koko didn't answer, having already dozed off as renewed warmth soaked into her bones. Rachel turned to Donoma. "What happened out there, Donoma?" Rachel asked softly, concern coloring her tone. And Donoma told her the unvarnished truth. Before she was done, Rachel was growling and her blue eyes were sparking flames.

When Donoma finished, she looked at Rachel expectantly. "I will help you care for Koko Kanti, Rae'l. It is my place as her advisor."

"It will be a lot of unpleasant work, Donoma. When Koko Kanti is ill, everyone is miserable." Donoma cocked her head thoughtfully.


Rachel laughed at the seriousness of the question. "Because she has much of her Neho'e in her and Honiahaka, for all his positive attributes was not a patient man, especially where sickness was concerned."

"All the more reason you will need my help. And if you require further assistance, I am certain my Nahko'e will be glad to do so."

"Thank you, Donoma Chepi," Rachel accepted graciously. "I welcome your aid in my hour of need." Donoma's chest swelled with pride at the formality of Rachel's wording. It meant she took Donoma's offer seriously and would allow her to take care of Koko to the best of her ability... though in fairness, Rachel didn't expect Donoma to provide much help. After all, how much could a five-year-old really do?


"You caught my Nahko'e completely by surprise - did you know that? She never expected anyone to be able to put up with me, especially not a child as young as you were. I do not think she understood the bond that was between us even then."

"Why would she, warrior mine? We did not understand it until very recently. But even then I understood you were doing your best not to make things too difficult for me."

"Did you really?

"Oh yes... though it does not relieve you of the title of worst patient." Donoma bit her lip to keep from laughing when Koko poked her lip out in a pout. "Oh, Nutta... I understood why. You tolerated enforced inactivity then even less than I do now."

"This is true. Those were a few very long days for me."

"For me as well, warrior - although that is when my Neho'e discovered my gift for healing as well as sight."

"Do you enjoy it?" Koko asked abruptly. Donoma's eyes widened in question and Koko shook her head. "Healing... do you enjoy healing?"

"Usually yes. I like the feeling of accomplishment knowing my efforts made a difference in someone's well-being. I hate when I cannot heal... when someone suffers from my lack of knowledge or skill. But mostly I hated it when you were the one who was hurt or suffering."

"I did not do so very often."

"For which fact I am very thankful. Though except for that last episode, the first was the most difficult for me."

"Was I really so difficult?"

"No, warrior. I was so young."

"Yes, you were, ka'eskone. And I was so proud of you."

Donoma smiled. "I was pretty proud of me too."


Donoma tended patiently to Koko, despite Koko's irritation and complaining - wiping her brow, feeding her broth, reading to her in a slow, halting effort while Rachel listened and patiently corrected her. Together they bathed Koko and kept her dry and after three days, her fever broke. Rachel and Donoma got Koko cleaned up, then Rachel took the dirty bedding and clothes out to scrub them and set them to dry. When she returned, she smiled at the sight that met her tired eyes.

Donoma lay tucked into Koko's body, both of them sleeping soundly. Rachel covered them both, then stepped back outside to call Takoda and Litonya to see. It was a memory all of them would treasure for years to come.


"I remember waking up with you - it made me feel like the strong protector I wanted to be. It simply reinforced the promise I made to you."

"Did it?"

"Oh yes... you were so small and asleep you are much less formidable. I do not think you realize the sheer force of your personality... even then you were able to make people cower and tremble with a look. Personally, I was very entertained by the reaction of the boys after the showdown at the river that day."

"They were much more respectful, but it did not get me included."

"Nothing would have done that, ka'eskone. They simply did not know how to deal with someone who was their better, so it was easiest just to avoid that sort of interaction with you."

"That does not make it hurt any less," Donoma acknowledged softly.

Koko wrapped Donoma in a full body hug. "I know, ka'eskone. But you can take comfort from the fact that now they seek you out - for both your friendship and your counsel."

"I know, but it does not make the hurt I felt as a child lessen. I am so glad you were there."

"As am I, Donoma. But I will confess I am glad to know we can now count on those who once shunned you. Despite the pain I felt leaving you, I did take comfort knowing the rest would guard and protect you when I no longer could." She paused. "I would not mind having them here now, in point of fact." Donoma shifted until she could look into Koko's face.

"What troubles you, warrior?"

"Aside from the fact I do not trust Washburn? Not much. I suspect he is coming to cause trouble and will bring a number of compatriots with him to ensure his success. I would feel better if some of the People's warriors were here to back me up."

"Why did you not instruct Hassun to bring the warriors back with him?"

"Because my first concern had to be for the well-being of the People and this fight is personal. It would have been irresponsible for me to have made such a request, especially considering my recent history with the People."

"As far as they are concerned, we are joined, Koko Kanti. They would come for that reason alone - but warrior, you have to know they would come for you as well if you asked."

"I know, ka'eskone. I would have asked for your sake, but you have proven yourself a warrior in your own right. I trust you to watch my back."

"Good thing," Donoma replied. "Although I would feel better if there were more than just us."

"We will work it out, ka'eskone. And when the time comes, we will stand together and that is the most important thing. Now come," leading Donoma to their big bed. "Let us see if we can work out the restlessness you seem to have developed."

Donoma smiled. "I am certain if we work together we can come up with an equitable solution."

Koko threw back her head and laughed - a sound which soon transmuted into a moan as Donoma took control of the situation and started undressing Koko with deliberate intent. Then their focus was all about one another and the night passed into day without them even noticing.


"Will they make it in time?" Odahingum asked Takoda several days after the warriors had departed with Hassun. He had been more than anxious to return despite his fatigue and he had turned in as soon as his report had been made to catch as much rest as he could before beginning the arduous journey back to town early the following morning. It was then that the warriors had decided who would go and who would remain, but by the time Hassun was ready, so was the contingent of warriors that would accompany him.

"I do not know, my friend. The Great Spirit has been less than communicative of late. I am coming to the conclusion that he has less knowledge of Koko and Donoma than he is willing to admit."

Odahingum chuckled. "I know how he feels. I believe the only two who understand those two are the two of them. But I am glad they have each other. They are capable of so much together." He paused then turned his face to Takoda. "Perhaps that is why he leaves them to themselves so much - they are capable."

"Perhaps, but it would be nice if he would let the rest of us know. I would have less gray."

Now Odahingum laughed. "Where is the challenge in that?"

Takoda snorted. "Like life is not challenge enough. I would like to believe they will be able to make a difference, but it remains to be seen. You will know as soon as I do, Odahingum. This I promise you."

Odahingum nodded. "Very well, my friend. I will accept your word and hope that you are correct in your assessment." He shook his head and cleared his throat. "When did we get so old that we now sit and wait for news instead of leading the warriors to battle?"

"I think we blinked, Chief. Because it was not at all slow in coming."

"At least we have capable leaders in those coming behind. That gives me a measure of peace."

"Me as well." Then their attention turned back to the fire, hoping it would give them answers.

Chapter XL

"How close are we, Hassun?"

"We have made good time, Honaw. If I have figured correctly, we will reach Reb Stone's home sometime around mid afternoon tomorrow."

"I thought you said it would take close to half a moon," Keez commented as he took his place around the fire pit. "It has only been just over a quarter."

"It took me half a moon to find the People because you had deviated from the path I was instructed to follow to find you. We are going directly to Stone's place because I am aware of exactly where it is and how to get there. Besides, we have been riding a little longer every day than would be considered normal. That has cut time off our return trip as well."

"So once we reach Koko Kanti's, then what?"

Hassun shrugged. "That will be up to her. She will probably send me back to town to await further developments. I am certain your presence will take her by surprise unless Donoma Chepi has been gifted with the foreknowledge of your coming."

"It is possible, but not likely," Keez commented. "From my observation, the Great Spirit is very sparing about sharing too much information ahead of time."

Honaw snorted. "Neho'e believes it is the Great Spirit's way of allowing us to think for ourselves."

"You do not think so?"

"I think if he had all the answers he would find a way to share them that would still allow us to choose our path."

"Crisis of faith, Honaw?"

"No, frustration with it." He shook his head to clear it. "It does not matter. I am certain we will find the answers we need when we need them. It would just be nice to know that Koko and Donoma will find some sort of peace and happiness in this life... even if only for a little while. It seems they have already been through enough."

"Perhaps, but it has made them a formidable foe to tangle with," Hassun assured them. "I do not think Mordecai Washburn is going to be capable of defeating them, no matter the force he brings with him. They have something beyond his understanding, and he does not know how to beat that."

Honaw shook his head, but returned his gaze to the flame. "I hope you are right, Hassun... for all our sakes."


"Boss, we should be in town by dusk tomorrow."

"'Bout damnable time!" Washburn growled at the trail boss Riggins. "Goddamn trip has already taken more'n twice as long as it should have!" Due to inclement weather, what should have been a week's trek across the prairie had turned into sixteen days of slogging across mud-slicked ground. They had sat in makeshift tents as many days as they had spent moving and now men and horses were exhausted beyond reasonable expectation. "I hope to God that fucking abomination isn't in town when we arrive. The way everyone feels at the moment, I'm not sure we could rightly defeat her, and I plan to crush the life out of her slowly... with my bare hands."

Riggins' eyes widened at the venom in Washburn's tone, but he simply nodded his head and said, "Yessir."

"Tell the men they'll have two days in town to rest and recover before we make an effort to find Stone. BUT!" the fierceness of his eyes and tone causing every hair on Riggins' body to stand at attention. "No one is to go into the saloon or the whorehouse. I want the men rested and ready to hit the trail again. They can wait to do their drinking and celebrating until we return victorious. Make sure that is understood, Riggins. The man who disobeys will die at my hand in a manner for worse than Stone."

"I'll make sure they know, boss."

Washburn grunted. "See that you do... or you'll be first."

Riggins nodded briskly and moved away, wondering when the hell this had seemed like a good idea.


"Why are we running, warrior?" Donoma asked as they packed up the last of their gear. Black and Dapples stomped impatiently, not at all happy with their return to blankets and bridles... and in Black's case, a heavy western saddle.

"We are not running, ka'eskone," Koko answered patiently. "We are putting the odds more in our favor. By my figuring, it took two to three days for Washburn to get the telegram explaining his son's death. Even if he was able to leave immediately upon receipt of that telegram, it would still take Washburn a week's travel by horseback from his ranch - that by his own son's admission." Koko smiled when Donoma's eyebrow went up in mute question. "Since I have not heard from Stephen yet, it is safe to say he has not arrived yet."

"Then why are we leaving? Will Stephen not look for us here first?"

"Yes, but he will know how to read the signs to know where to find us as well."

"What about Washburn's sons?"

"Apparently, his sons were glad to be away from him, despite the fact that he could still command them from a distance. Hassun said Leroy confessed in a drunken binge one night that Mordecai Washburn was one scary son of a bitch and he was glad for the distance between them."

"So why did they continue to follow him if he was so far away? They were beyond him out here, were they not?"

"Not necessarily, ka'eskone. It is very likely if Washburn is the head of a gang stealing horses out from under the noses of the US Army, that he has spies in the town if not in the Army itself. Horse thieves make a lot of money stealing horses, but they pay a hefty price if they're caught. Having what is practically the law in your pocket would make things that much more lucrative for everyone involved."

"You think Stephen is a part of Washburn's gang?"

Koko shook her head slowly. "I am not certain, ka'eskone. I do not think it is him, but someone has to be helping Washburn for him to have lasted as long as he has."

"You think this has been going on a while?"

"At least three full cycles... since his sons came to serve together at the fort here. They approached me early on, kind of feeling me out."

"Why did you not put a stop to it then, warrior?"

Koko shrugged. "Many reasons - mostly that I had no proof... only suspicions. And suspicions weren't enough. There was never any evidence."

"And there is now?"

"Now I have been accused of being a horse thief. That is proof enough for me to go looking. And everything points to the Washburns as heading up a gang of them right out of the Army itself. With the testimony of the enlisted men who were doing the dirty work, proving it will be simple."

"And what of Washburn?"

"That depends on him, Donoma. If he collects Reuben's body and goes home, I will let him go in peace and leave the Marshal and the Army to deal with him. If he comes after me, however, he will die at my hand. I will not let him threaten me and mine."

"You expect him to, don't you... come after you, I mean?"

"Yes. For whatever reason in their twisted little minds, I have always been something of a sore spot for all of them. Leroy wanted my horse; Reuben wanted my skills; Malcolm wanted to bed me and Mordecai just wants revenge." Koko shook her head. "I have to wonder what I did in a past life to warrant such attention from the likes of them."

Donoma grinned. "Perhaps they are the balance for us to be together."

"Perhaps, but could you not have had some admirers of your own to help balance things out instead of leaving all the nutbreads for me"

"And who says I have not had my own set of admirers, warrior?" Donoma teased. "You were gone for five very long years. There were several warriors who took notice of me."

Flaming blue eyes turned to Donoma in a fit of jealousy. "Who, Donoma? Who was foolish enough to take notice of you in my absence??"

"Why foolish, Koko Kanti?" Donoma asked, her own eyes blazing. "A woman likes to be noticed, even when the one she wants to see her is no longer there!"

In an instant, the burn was extinguished in Koko's eyes and she dropped her head. "I am sorry, Donoma Chepi. I have no right...."

"You have every right, my mate. They did nothing but look, because they knew nothing would come from it. But none of them would dare to even look now. No one is anxious to die at your hand... or mine. That is the reason Washburn will never defeat us. He does not understand what he is facing when he comes up against us. You are mine and I will not let him take you from me again."

"You know the truly sad thing about this whole business?" Koko asked as she pulled the door to the cabin shut behind them and mounted Black. Donoma looked at her from where she sat comfortably seated on Dapples' broad back. "If they had left me out of this... if they had simply left me alone to track down and bring in outlaws for their bounty, we wouldn't be doing this right now."

"What I cannot understand is what precipitated this series of events. If as you say this has been going on for three full cycles, why the need to expose themselves now by accusing you? Why not continue to work in the shadows and keep you out of it?"

"I think if we learn the answer to that we will know the answer to a good many things."

The two women headed out side by side. "So where are we going, warrior mine?"

"We need to make preparations at a couple of different hideaways I have in these parts. Then we are going to go looking for Hassun. With luck, he is not far and we will be able to meet up with him tomorrow."


"How far do you think we will need to go to find Hassun, Koko? Should he not have already returned with his news from the People?"

"It depends on how long it took him to find the People, ka'eskone. I put him on the path that Honaw and Keez gave to us when they found us after our joining. But if the People have changed their path again, it would take him longer to find them. Hassun is a scout and a tracker - I believe he will be able to find them with very little problem. The real question is how long it will take him to convince them and return."

"You think they will not believe him?"

"I think there will be some mistrust there simply because he is a tracker and scout for the white man's Blue Coats. Only the fact that Honaw is expecting him and has spoken to him before will make his acceptance easier."

They rode in silence for a while. Already they had placed supplies in two different hideaways and now they were headed west on the path they expected to meet Hassun on. The day was warmer and drier than many of their recent days had been and despite the reason for their travels, they were enjoying the journey and their time together.

"This is nice," Donoma commented after the silence had gone on for a while. "I could get used to this."

Koko reached out a hand and smiled when Donoma took it. "So could I, ka'eskone. It would be very easy to allow this to become our way of life - just you and me and the wide open plain?"

"Yes it would. It is very different from traveling with the People."

"It is very different than anything else I have ever known."

"It would be so easy just to keep going."

"Soon, Donoma. As soon as we are sure things are settled with Washburn. I have always wanted to see what is beyond the rocks we visited outside the summer encampment. I would like to see the mountains the Army scouts have spoken of."

"Tell me."

Koko's words were quiet, but filled with a wonder that allowed Donoma to see what Koko was describing to her. A smile crossed her face as she imagined sharing those sights with Koko.

"Why are you smiling?"

"Being with you is not reason enough?" Donoma teased. "I was thinking how nice it would be to see these things with you. They sound wonderful."

"Come," pulling Black to a halt and sliding from his back. "This is as nice a place to camp as any and besides, I think we've ridden far enough for the day. It will be dark soon and we can count the stars together."

Donoma smiled and slid from Dapples' back into Koko's arms. "If it was not for the fact that Washburn is nothing but a troublemaker as far as you are concerned, I would be thankful that he gave us a reason to be out here again under the stars."

"Me too."

They set up camp and sat together watching the sunset as they ate, then leaning back together as the stars began to make their appearance. For a while their attention was focused up, pointing out patterns as they were made manifest in the sky.

Then Donoma shifted to look at Koko and she frowned. Koko smoothed out the furrows in her brow. "Donoma?" She shifted to her elbows to put her and Donoma nose to nose. "Ka'eskone, what is wrong?"

"Warrior, why is there a light on the ground over there?" motioning some distance from their own camp.

Koko sat up the remainder of the way and turned. She watched for some time. "It is another camp, but there are a number of people there. It could be more of the white man pushing into our territory, but I do not see any of the wagons that they normally travel with."

"Could it be a band of outlaws?"

Koko frowned. "I suppose it could be, but Stephen did not mention anything about anyone being out here. I need to take a closer look, ka'eskone. Will you wait here for me?"

Donoma studied Koko's face in the starlight a long moment, then she nodded. "I will, but be quick, warrior. I do not want to have to come in and save you."

"But you would if I needed you to, would you not?"

"In a heartbeat."

Koko leaned forward and kissed Donoma for a long moment. "Be right back," she said when they separated. Then she disappeared into the darkness surrounding them and only Donoma's knowledge allowed her to follow Koko's progress towards the other camp.

Koko was not gone very long by anyone's calculations but Donoma was counting the minutes. When Koko returned, she gave a small sigh of relief that Koko felt.

"Were you worried, ka'eskone?"

"Perhaps a little, warrior. What did you find out?"

Koko's grin was wide and it reflected the natural light brightly. "I found out," she said gleefully, putting her arms around Donoma's waist, "that the odds are now in our favor." Donoma arched a brow at her and Koko laughed aloud, albeit quietly. "That encampment is Hassun... and half the warriors of the People."

Donoma's eyes widened. "Really?" She scrunched her forehead. "Wait - half?"

"It looks like it."

"So that means...."

"That means we have a much better chance to end this in our favor quickly if Washburn decides he has a bone to pick with me." She noticed Donoma's confused expression and smiled. "If he wants to make things personal and come after me."

"I will pick his bone and beat him to death with it," Donoma said somberly. Then they exchanged glances and burst into laughter. "So do the warriors know we are out here?" Koko shook her head.

"No. I figure to surprise them at dawn tomorrow."

"So we still have the evening to ourselves?" Koko nodded and smiled when Donoma took her hand and tugged her back down to their bedroll. "Good... we still have a number of stars to chase."

It was a moment's peace before the coming storm.

Chapter XLI

Washburn pulled his horse to a stop in front of the tiny hotel with a sigh of relief. They had spent too damn many days on the trail and his body was aching from facing the rigors it was no longer accustomed to dealing with. He would be thrilled to see a bed with a real mattress - two and a half weeks of sleeping on the hard, muddy ground had made them all tired and miserable.

He crossed the threshold, the spurs on his boots making an obnoxious jingling sound. It brought the proprietor from the back, wiping his hands on a towel. But before he could speak, Washburn spoke up gruffly.

"How many rooms ya got?"


"I'll take 'em all for me and my men. And I need a place to stable our horses," nodding when the innkeeper motioned to the stable area out back. "What time's supper?"


Washburn rolled his eyes, idly wondering if that was the only word the rotund little man in front of him had the ability to speak. Then he decided it didn't matter - the man was of no consequence to him and if he was able to provide shelter and a decent meal at a reasonable price, so much the better. He motioned to Riggins.

"Pay the man and see that the men settle in and get some rest. I'm gonna go talk to the Army and see if I can find out what the hell happened to my sons."

"And after that?"

"After that? Well, now that all depends on what I find out from the Army. You scout around the town and see what you can discover. I wanna know what we're up against in regards to Stone," not seeing the proprietor's eyes widen at the mention of Koko's white man's name. "If we can, I'd prefer not to have to chase her down - gives her too much of an advantage. But I'm not sure how the townsfolk feel about her; they might feel the need to get involved and that could get messy. I'd like it to be neat - less loose ends to tie up."

"Meet back here for supper?"

"Yeah. If I get back from the fort earlier, I'll come find you." Then Mordecai headed back out, giving orders to one of his cowboys to look after his horse before turning his steps in the direction of the fort to find some answers.


The proprietor of the hotel, one Matthew Carver by name, took the money from Riggins and passed him keys to the six rooms he had available. He answered the questions Riggins put to him, telling the truth as much as possible without actually giving him much useful information. The town was already divided over their feelings about Reb Stone having some sort of Injun wife. No way was Carver going to add fuel to the fire against her if he could help it. God knew she'd done far more good for the people of the town and surrounding area than most of the holy rollers that wanted to condemn her.

If Riggins knew he was getting far less information than he'd expected, he didn't let it show in his expression. Instead, he accepted the facts he was given with a polite nod of his head, then went back outside to give the boys their instructions. He knew if he asked around long enough, he'd be able to find someone more than willing to give him the answers he needed.

The cowboys took his words at face value, too tired to care much about the restrictions they had been placed under. They expected things to be over with and settled in another day or two - waiting that long for their pleasure would not kill them... and would probably be that much more pleasant when they were finally allowed to indulge.

Riggins watched them gather up their things, half leading the horses into the stables; the other half moving to put the saddle bags in their rooms. Satisfied that they were content to mind their orders for now, he left to make his trek through the town. Surely somewhere here he'd be able to find the answers he sought.


Kitty watched the Washburn contingent arrive in the late afternoon sunlight. Business was slow - not an unforeseen obstacle in the middle of the week - and she had plenty of time to watch the goings on in the town. She watched as Washburn went in, followed by a tall, gangly man she assumed was his trail boss by his gait and manner. The cowboys sat quietly mounted, bedraggled and obviously tired by their very demeanor, until the second man came back out and started issuing orders.

Her eyes moved back to the first man - Washburn, she'd concluded, given his age and direction. She waited until he disappeared around the street corner that would take him directly to the fort before allowing her gaze to return to the large group of cowboys now splitting up.

She let her eyes follow the trail boss as he headed up the street, wondering what he was looking for. When he went into the dry goods store, she called for Ginger.

"Put on your going out duds and go talk to Matthew... see if he knows who those boys are and what they want. I have a feelin' Washburn and his bunch just arrived in town. If I'm right, they should be lookin' for Reb."

"What 'bout you?"

"I'm gonna go talk to Stephen. Maybe he can go find Reb... give her a heads up that Washburn is here with a posse of men. Which in my opinion means he's come lookin' for trouble. He don't need that many fellas just to pick up a body or two. And besides, he didn't bring no wagons to transport anything or anyone home with him."

"All right, Kitty. I'll go talk to Matthew," Ginger replied as they headed up the stairs together. "I have to say that I'll be glad when this is all over."

"Why?" Kitty asked, genuinely curious. She knew why she'd be glad to see the end of this little saga - Reb had always looked after them and though Kitty knew Reb was staying away to keep trouble in the town to a minimum, she missed her presence. "It hasn't hurt business. Hell, if we got those cowboys in here, it'd be a nice little mid-week bonus."

"And who'd service them, Kit? They're Washburn's men and they're takin' up sides against Reb - who'd take their blood money?"

Kitty smiled and wrapped an arm round Ginger's waist. "I knew I could count on you, Ging. But why will you be glad when it's over?"

"Cause it'll be nice to have things settled. I'm tired of living in the center of a hornet's nest that is really no one's business to start with."

"You think Reb defeating Washburn will stop that?"

"I can hope," Ginger replied as she slipped into her 'going out' clothing. "No one much cared until the Washburn boys started stirring up shit about her."

"We'll hope, then. Although I don't see them close-minded old biddies changing their minds about anything much anytime soon. It puts them in the wrong, ya know."

Ginger snorted. "I wonder how they survived back East," pinning her hair up under her hat and then opening the door and motioning Kitty out ahead of her. Kitty chuckled.

"Why do you think they came West?"

"Not to find the likes of us... or Reb Stone, I'm betting. Now go see Stephen. We'll meet back here and pool our information." Then they stepped from the saloon, each heading their own way.


Riggins was becoming more than a little frustrated - everywhere he had been in this town so far had been most unyielding with any information about Reb Stone. If he had been a suspicious man, he would have suspected a conspiracy against him personally. As it was, he was fairly confident he was being stonewalled for lack of a better term, but he couldn't figure out why.

Finally, after unsuccessful ventures into the hotel, the dry goods store, the blacksmith's shop, the tailor's, the post office and the marshal's office, Riggins was at something of a loss to know where else to try. Then the ringing of the bell signaling the time for prayer meeting got his attention and he turned and headed back the way he had come, only this time, he was going to church.

Reverend Hawkins stood outside the door greeting the few parishioners who deigned to attend mid-week services. There weren't that many and not for the first time did the reverend wonder if it was all just a waste of time. Surely if the Lord were blessing his efforts here, there would be more of an outpouring? more people attending... more *something* at any rate. Then he saw a stranger approaching and his countenance changed.

"Welcome, friend," he greeted. "Have you come to join us in worship?"

Riggins swallowed the guffaw he wanted to emit. Instead he cleared his throat, "No, Reverend. I'm pretty sure God wouldn't welcome the likes a me." Before the pastor could argue his words, Riggins continued. "I was looking for some information... about a bounty hunter by the name of Reb Stone."

Hawkins' eyes widened comically. "I see. Um... well, as you can see, I am preparing to conduct a prayer meeting service, but if we could talk in the morning...."

"Reverend, if I stay for your prayer meeting, would you be willing to talk to me tonight? I really do need that information as soon as possible."

Daniel scrubbed a hand over his face, making a rasping buzzing noise. "It's that important?"

"I b'lieve so."

The reverend shook his head. "Let me get the service underway and when we break into prayer groups, you and me'll have us a little talk."

"Thank ya, Parson? 'preciate it."


Honaw's face scrunched into a frown but he refused to open his eyes, brushing at whatever was tickling him. It stopped and he sighed, settling back down to sleep. A moment later the sensation returned and he swatted again, managing to wake himself when his hand came into contact with his face. He sat up, glaring at the ground around him to determine what had been annoying the hell out of him. Unable to find anything more than the waving grasses surrounding him, Honaw huffed and lay back down, hoping to get a little more sleep before the sun made its appearance over the horizon.

Donoma chuckled and looked at Koko wide-eyed. "How did you do that?" her voice a bare whisper. "He did not even see you, and you were sitting right next to him."

"Years of practice, ka'eskone. Do you not recall the number of times we defeated the rest in hiding and seeking games because they could not find us? It is simply a matter of becoming part of your surroundings and it is one reason I am as successful as I am as a bounty hunter."

"I was never able to master that skill the way you did, warrior. It was always you who blended us into what was around us. I had just never seen it work like that before - from the outside, so to speak."

Koko nodded and then kissed Donoma, motioning for silence as they separated once more. Donoma watched in awe as Koko went around the camp, tickling and aggravating the warriors? even going so far as to awaken many of them without ever once revealing herself to them.

Then, as the sun began to edge towards the horizon, just as the sky lightened from black to gray, the men began to stir and Koko sat quietly on Black's back? and waited.

Honaw was the first to open his eyes again, blinking furiously to clear his vision? only to shake his head in disbelief when they landed on Koko's casually sprawled form.

One by one the warriors woke up, then fell into silence upon recognition that Koko Kanti and Donoma Chepi were in their midst. Only Hassun found the voice to speak.

"Greetings from the People, warrior champion and seer of the Great Spirit. We bid you welcome into our camp," formally inviting both Koko and Donoma to join them. Koko and Donoma exchanged glances, then Koko slid negligently from her saddle before assisting Donoma from Dapples' back.

"We accept your welcome and the warmth of your fire." She motioned to the fire that Honaw and Keez were currently stoking back to flame.

"Join us," Hassun invited, "and hear news we bring from the People."

Honaw snorted, having finally had enough of the formality. He turned to Donoma and opened his arms and she walked into his embrace. Koko shook her head with a smile, extending an arm to Hassun in warrior greeting. Then the rest gathered around them, anxious to welcome them and offer their congratulations on the recent joining.

For a few minutes this went on and Koko allowed it to do so, knowing each of the men present wanted to express their happiness at the newest union among the People. She watched, seeing no jealousy or mistrust among her brothers in arms and sighed to herself in relief. Takoda and Odahingum had chosen well those they had sent to her aid. These would watch her back to the best of their ability, and in the event that something happened to her, they would see to it that Donoma was taken care of.

After a few minutes, however, she shook those thoughts from her head and motioned the warriors to settle. They did so quickly, taking their places around the fire and waiting for her to speak. She looked around at them, meeting each of their eyes briefly before moving on to the next. Only when she finished did she look at Donoma, holding out her hand and pulling Donoma to her when she grasped it.

"Hestatanemos, you honor us both by coming to us in what could be our time of need."

"Could be, Koko Kanti? Have you had no vision of what is to come, Donoma?" Honaw asked his sister, not unkindly. Donoma shook her head.

"I have seen nothing, Honaw. The Great Spirit has shown me nothing beyond the finding of my mate. Has Neho'e seen?" gazing at him expectantly for an answer. Honaw shook his head.

"Not that he shared with us," he said, glancing around the camp and finding confirmation in the eyes that met his. "Only that he felt it best to send the warriors of the People to stand with you if you had need of such."

"And the rest?"

"The rest have gone to the summer camp." Koko nodded with approval. "So Koko," Keez continued speaking, "What can we do? What did Takoda and Odahingum send us here to do for you?"

"That depends on what Washburn does. If he comes to town simply to retrieve the remains of his sons, then nothing will need to be done. You will have taken a journey that will serve no purpose other than to allow us a chance to visit with each other."

"But you do not believe this to be the truth," Honaw stated without question.

"No. I believe he blames me for the death of his sons and that he will come seeking retribution from me."

"Why has he not already done so?" Keez asked straightforwardly, then blinked and swallowed when all eyes turned in his direction. "Um? it just seems to me that since it has been more than half a moon since this started, he should have done something by now if he was going to."

"Perhaps," Koko conceded. "But you must keep in mind that he has to travel as well. And we have no way of knowing when he started or what the weather is like or how many miles he is willing to go in a single day. There are many things we are unaware of; therefore we must work under the best assumption we can make."

"And you believe he will search for you."

"I do. If he had already been to the fort and claimed his sons, the Marshal would have gotten word to me. Nevertheless, since I am responsible, however inadvertently, for the deaths of two of his sons and the crippling of the third, I do not think he will be able to let it go without some sort of revenge. I further believe that their deaths have interrupted the efforts of the horse thieves that I was accused of being party to - one I am convinced belongs to Mordecai Washburn."


"Huh? What do you mean why? Why what?"

"Why do you believe Washburn to be a horse thief? From what Hassun explained, he is a rancher with enough food and shelter to provide for his clan. He has no need to steal."

Koko snorted. "Since when does need matter in the grand scheme of things, Keez? He can, so he does. It makes him richer and more powerful in the white man's world. And given what little we have learned, it makes the most sense."

"Except for one thing," Donoma commented gently. Koko arched an eyebrow and Donoma returned the favor, causing grins to break out among the warriors. "Why were they never caught? They had to have been doing something extremely well to have remained hidden. So who was helping them? And why bring attention to themselves by involving you?"

"Those are excellent questions, ka'eskone," Koko stated without qualm. "I believe the answer to the second part of your theory is revenge. I was a thorn in their side and they hoped that by slandering my name, I would be forced to work with them. That definitely could have been to their advantage."

"And the first?"

"I think Donoma is on the right track," Koko said. "However, we need to get moving. If Washburn is going to come looking for me, I am going to force him to meet me on my turf? on my terms."

With those words, the warriors moved as one to eliminate any trace of the camp. Then they mounted up and waited for Koko and Donoma to do the same - for where they led, the warriors would always follow.

Chapter XLII

"So then Mister...?" Daniel Hawkins hesitated and looked his question at the man currently seated across from him. He had clear eyes and a strong chin and the good reverend had his suspicions as to why this stranger was asking after Reb Stone. But he decided to let the man speak for himself before jumping to any more conclusions. His track record in that regard was pretty bad lately.

"Riggins," the foreman answered without hesitation. "Everyone just calls me Riggins."

"Well then, Mr. Riggins... what is it you think I can help you with?"

"As I said, Reverend... I'm lookin' for some information about the bounty hunter Reb Stone."

"May I ask why you are looking for her?" A beat. "I have to tell you, Mr. Riggins - Reb Stone has been a powerful force for good in this town. Even those that don't like her respect the things she has done for this place."

"Is that why people are unwilling to even talk about her?"

The minister nodded. "Pretty much. It doesn't help that you're a stranger to them."

"I see," Riggins said, truly understanding Hawkins' point. "Perhaps you'd be willing to share a little about her then," he asked. "All I know is she is a bounty hunter that has crossed one line too many as far as my boss is concerned. I'm beginnin' to wonder if she had a legitimate reason to."

"Your boss... Mordecai Washburn?"

"You know him?"

"I know *of* him. He had two sons in the Army stationed at the fort here - both dead now. I have to be honest with you, Mr. Riggins? I have heard some things about them since their deaths that don't paint an honorable picture of them. They seemed to have personal issues with Stone that have brought some of their own activities into a questionable light."

"How so?"

The minister folded his hands together on his desk and met Riggins eyes unflinchingly. "Do you know how serious a charge of horse thievin' is in these here parts, Mr. Riggins? Do you know the penalty if a man is proven to be a horse thief?" Riggins nodded, his eyes wide at the implication of Hawkins' words.

"Leroy and Reuben were making some rumblings against Stone... accusing her of being a horse thief."

"Perhaps she was," Riggins replied bluntly.

"No, Mr. Riggins. She wasn't. It's not even vaguely possible."

"Why?" he asked in a reasonable tone. "She's done so much good that she's not capable of such a terrible crime? Did anyone ever stop to think that maybe the reason she's done so much good is to keep people from seeing her true motive? To gain the trust of the people here so she could rob them blind?"

"Except that she hasn't had the time... until recently, every spare moment was spent here in town. And she has been far too busy catching the outlaws and criminals in this territory to have had time to round up horses - to say nothing of having the time or the means to dispose of them."

"And you think two Army officers would have?"

"All I know for certain, Mr. Riggins, is that Reb Stone is no horse thief."

"There's no smoke without some fire, Parson."

"Then I suggest you go lookin' where that smoke started."

"Are you speakin' ill of the dead, Reverend?"

"The Army ain't dead, Mr. Riggins."

Riggins stood and Daniel rose with him. "Do you know where Stone is?" he asked bluntly as Hawkins opened the door to let him leave.

"No. She and her mate haven't been in town for over two weeks."

"Would you tell me if you knew?"

"I dunno," Hawkins replied. "I'd like to think so if only to give Stone a chance to clear her name. But I don't think that's what you want her for, is it?"

"Good evening, Reverend," Riggins said as he walked out the door without answering the parson's question. Hawkins watched him head back to the inn, and after only a moment's hesitation, stepped out of the room and closed the door behind him. Maybe he could catch the Marshal before things got ugly.


"Are you sure, Kitty?" Murphy asked, even as he girded himself with extra guns and ammunition. He had a feeling he was going to have to go looking for Stone and he wanted to be prepared for any eventuality.

"As sure as I can be, Stephen. There were a whole passel of cowboys with him and the old man took off for the fort first thing. I'd say it has to be Washburn, but Ginger went to talk to Matthew about it to make sure." She glanced at her timepiece. "She should be back at the saloon by now. You wanna go ask her?"

"I s'pose I should. Could you...?"

"I'll saddle your horse, but you be quick, ya hear me?"

He chuckled and slapped his hat down on the top of his head. "Fast as I can, Kitty. The way this thing seems to be coming to a head, I can't afford to go slow. Be right back."

She waved him out then looked down at her good clothes and grimaced before heading out back to the stable. I must be nuts, she grumbled to herself silently. I only hope it's all worth it. Then she got down to the business of getting Murphy's horse saddled, feeling like time was quickly slipping away from them.


A knock on his open door made John Spencer look up in annoyance. Usually when the door was open, his sergeant just walked to the desk and waited to be acknowledged. It made for a more relaxed atmosphere and Spencer appreciated that in light of all the stringent regulations he was forced to work under. So now he pinned Clemmons with a baleful stare.

"I'm sorry for interrupting, sir," letting him know that the interruption was official and yet out of his normal jurisdiction. "But there is a Mr. Mordecai Washburn here to see you."

Spencer swallowed hard and nodded his head. He cleared his desk, then nodded to Clemmons. "Please show him in, Sergeant, and close the door behind you."

"Yessir," stepping back and motioning Washburn in. The door closed with the barest snick and the two men stood looking at one another. Finally....

"Mr. Washburn," motioning the older man to a seat. "I'm so sorry...."

"Save it, Colonel," Washburn snapped, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "What the hell were you thinking?? How could you screw this up so badly?"

"Sit down and lower your voice or I'll have you removed."

"Careful, little man... I know enough to have you locked up in your own stockade for the rest of your life," though he did lower his voice and take the seat Spencer offered him. Mordecai nodded his head in the affirmative when the colonel offered him a shot of whiskey.

"Just remember anything you think you know implicates you and no one here will take the word of a grieving father over a respected Army colonel."

"So you think you've got it all figured out, do you?"

"I think I know enough to keep me in the clear. If you had just stayed out of it...."

"Don't even go there, boy! Who do you think set you up here in the first place?? You didn't earn that commission - any more than either of my other two sons did. *I* paid for it... lock, stock and barrel. So don't sit there and act like you don't owe me!"

"I *don't* owe you, DAD. This was payment for your sins remember? To assuage your conscious for what you did to my mother... and your other wife."

Washburn's face grew apoplectic with rage. "Don't you speak to me in that tone, boy. You may be my son, but...."

"NO! I am not your son - you made that perfectly clear when you gave me this commission. I was a debt to be paid... guilt to be bought off. And still it came with strings attached. How did you manage to get them assigned to my unit?"

Washburn shrugged. "It was easy. Anything is easy with money and the right connections."

"So now what?"

"Now I want you to explain to me how things got so fucked up. You were supposed to look out for your brothers."

"That's rich. *Now* you want them to be my brothers?? Maybe you should have explained that to them a little more clearly. Maybe you should have taught them how to follow orders better."

"What are you saying?"

"I'm saying it is their own damn fault that they're dead. And it's their damn fault that your little horse operation has gone awry. I told them to leave things alone. And I told them to leave Stone out of it. They couldn't quite seem to manage it... especially the part about Stone. Now the entire town is up in arms over the accusations they made. They believe the Washburn boys were dirty... trying to cover their own guilt by laying the blame on Stone. If they'd just kept her out of it...."

"So what are you doing about it?"

"Not a damn thing," Spencer growled. "When the fervor dies down, you *might* be able to resume operations again, but I wouldn't count on it. All eyes are looking at us right now, and I'm not risking myself or anyone else for you. As far as I am concerned, the horse business died when Leroy got greedy and Reuben got stupid."

"How dare you...?"

"How dare *I*?? Very easily. After all... you sit back on the ranch and wait for the profits to flow in. You're not out here doing all the work and taking all the risks."

"I have clients...."

"Then I suggest you find a legitimate way to fulfill their contract, sir, because the US Army is no longer at your beck and call."

"I'll crush you."

"You can try. But I assure you, Mr. Washburn, I have learned a good many things in recent days. I doubt very seriously you would land on the winning side of a confrontation between us. And kindly do not forget that I have an entire garrison at my disposal. How many cowboys did you bring along on this vendetta of yours? A dozen, maybe? Do you really want to chance it?"

"You wouldn't...."

"Try me," Spencer confirmed flatly. "Take the bodies of your two sons and go home, old man. Leave Stone alone. Going after her will only bring you more heartache."

"I'm entitled to retribution. I'm entitled to justice."

Now Spencer laughed, a cruel, bitter sound. "Justice has already been dealt, and even Stone's enemies would agree with that. Cut your losses and go home."

Washburn stood and shoved his chair against the colonel's desk. "I'll make that determination, boy - not you or some abomination from God. I owe her and I'm gonna make sure things are square between us before I go home. You just stay out of my way!"

Washburn stomped over to the door and jerked it open, letting it slam against the wall as he walked out. Spencer just watched him go, not surprised when Clemmons stuck a cautious head in.

"Would you like me to close it again, sir?"

"No, Sergeant - leave it open. I think Mr. Washburn was just overcome with grief."

Clemmons nodded and resumed his seat without a word. There was no way he was going to tell the colonel that he'd overheard every single word. Suddenly, Jake Clemmons had a lot to think about, and not much time to make a decision in.


"You can't stop us, Marshal. We'll either ride with you, or we'll follow along behind. But you're not gonna leave us out of this. Too many of us here owe too much to Reb Stone to allow her to face this without some backup."

"And what makes you think something's goin' on?"

"Marshal, we ain't none of us that stupid. We all know who come to town today and judging from the amount of bodies he brought with him, I'd say it was fairly safe to assume it wasn't just to pick up his boys and head back to his ranch. Now what's it gonna be? Are we riding together or are we followin' 'long behind ya?"

Murphy sighed. Truth was, he wanted the backup. But he also didn't want to put these men in danger. There was a very real possibility that there would be a gunfight, and if that was the case, men were going to die.

"Marshal," another man spoke up. "We know the risks and we accept them. Our choice... not your responsibility."

"All right then," Murphy said after another long moment of meeting each of their eyes and seeing the determination writ clearly in every pair. "Gear up. We could be out there for a while. I'm gonna go let Spencer know to keep an eye on things while we're gone." The men nodded and went about their tasks while Stephen Murphy headed to the Army Fort.

The door was closed and he could hear raised voices, but Murphy was so intent on heading out to find Reb that he dismissed it as inconsequential at the time. Instead, he gave Clemmons a brief rundown of what was going on and obtained the sergeant's word that they would keep an eye on things. It wasn't until he was on his way back into town to pick up his posse that it occurred to him that Spencer must have been in conference with Washburn. He wondered what had caused them to argue or if it was just a father venting his grief. Murphy hoped it was the second, but he had the feeling there was a lot more to it than he knew. He only hoped not knowing now wouldn't come back to bite him in the ass later.

The men of the town were waiting for him in front of the brothel, already mounted and geared up, ready to go. Only Daniel Hawkins remained behind, unsurprisingly, although in all honesty, Murphy was glad he was staying in town. The Marshal didn't trust him and keeping him here meant not having to watch his back out there.

Kitty came out of the saloon, still all gussied up and only a little worse for the wear. He stepped up to her and nodded towards his horse. "Thanks, Kitty."

"You owe me."

"I certainly do."

"Here," handing him a package. "Somethin' from Big Mama. Don't ask... I don't know what it is either. Prob'ly cookies for all of you your first night out."

Murphy nodded. "I don't know how long we'll be. The Army's s'posed to keep an eye on things, but you may want to keep an eye on the Army. And definitely keep an eye on the good reverend. I don't trust him overly much."

"I'll do what I can, but make it quick, will ya? I got a bad feeling about this."

"Do my best," he assured her, leaning over and kissing her cheek. "I'll even try to get Reb and Donoma to come back with me, depending on how things go."

"I'm not gonna hold my breath. If I was the two of them, I'd want to be as far away from here as I could get. But you make sure they know that we'll welcome them with open arms if they do come back."

"I'll tell, 'em, Kit. You just take care while we're gone."

"You too, Marshal. That could be a mighty long road you're fixing to travel."

He nodded and mounted up, then turned his horse towards the sun that was moving closer and closer to the horizon. They would have to travel after dark, but they would reach Reb's homestead tonight. Depending on what they found there would determine their next course of action. Murphy only hoped they would not be too late.

Chapter XLIII

"So what is the plan, Koko Kanti? Surely we are not going to wait here for the white man to come and slaughter us?"

"Not at all, Keezheekoni. We will set up a perimeter around the area. When Washburn comes, he will be surrounded."

"Why do I get the feeling it will not be that easy?" Donoma muttered under her breath, but Koko turned and met her eyes.

"Because you are wise beyond your years and experience, ka'eskone." She turned back to the warriors of the People. "I will not tell you it will be easy, because I do not think it will. Washburn has been around for a long time."

"What if he does not come? How long are we to wait here?"

"Stephen will find us - I marked the trail for him. He will let us know if Washburn returns without seeking revenge."

"Why you?" Honaw asked abruptly. "Why come after you? Why implicate you at all?" He shook his head and looked at Koko. "It seems to me that it was rather stupid to bring such attention to you when had they simply left you alone, none of this would have happened."

Koko sighed. That question still plagued her. "I was something they could not conquer? could not tame. It started when I won Black and it went downhill from there. When I would not scout for them, it made it worse and when I would not sleep with them, it got personal."

"You were not meant for them. You were meant for Donoma Chepi!"

"I am aware," Koko replied to the outrage drolly. "But they were not suited for that kind of rejection."

"Koko," spoke up one of the more silent warriors unexpectedly. "There is something I do not understand."

"There are many things I do not understand, Rogi. What is your question?"

"How did they expect to darken your name with this accusation? By your own account, the one who shot Donoma did so in order to steal Black from you. How did he intend to accuse you of being a thief when all the evidence points to him?"

"I believe he was under the mistaken impression that the people in town would believe him because of his Blue Coat. Or he thought that by accusing me, I would be more likely to join him in his endeavors."

"What an idiot! That has to be the dumbest idea...."

Donoma snickered. "From what I have gathered, he was not noted for his intelligence. I am beginning to believe that lack runs in the family."

"Then we should be glad there is only one other to contend with. I wish we did not have to wait for him to come to us, though. I would like to get this over with so we can all go home," Honaw said, not missing the glances Donoma and Koko exchanged. "What?"

"We may not be returning to the People right away, Honaw," Donoma said softly, but the camp was so quiet, everyone heard her words. "Koko and I would like to spend some time reacquainting ourselves with one another... spend a bit of time alone together."

"So suddenly the People are not good enough to be your family?" he asked outraged. "We watched over you and cared for you when she left you alone, but now that she has returned we are not enough??" He rose from his place and stomped off into the darkness before anyone could formulate an answer. Keez stood to follow him, but Donoma laid a hand on his arm and shook her head

"My place," she stated and with a nod, he acquiesced. Donoma and Koko shared a glance so intimate, the rest looked away out of respect for their privacy. Koko ran a tender hand down the side of Donoma's face, smiling at the tremor she evoked with her touch, then sucking in her own breath when Donoma kissed her fingertips.

"Be quick, ka'eskone."

"I will, warrior." Then she turned and headed out into the darkness in the direction Honaw had disappeared.


"Marshal, how much further you figure we gotta go til we find 'em?" one of the men from the back of the crowd called out.

"Dunno, Thomas. Maybe an hour... maybe a little more. Been a while since I had to go riding in this direction. Truth is I'm not exactly sure where she is - I'm following her trail."

"But you do expect to find her," half statement and half question.

"Yep. It's just a matter of time." Just about that time he heard the cry of a hawk and he pulled up short, forcing everyone behind him to do the same. "Drop your guns... now!" before they could protest. He dropped his gunbelt and held up his hands, showing he was unarmed. The rest followed his example and they waited.

A long moment passed before a figure emerged from the darkness and the Marshal gave a sigh of relief when the moonlight revealed Reb Stone's set features.

"Stephen, what's all this?" motioning to the silent men behind him. "I was expecting you to come alone."

"We wouldn't let him, Reb," Thomas spoke up before Murphy could open his mouth. "We owe you too much to let you face Washburn alone."

"You don't owe me...."

"Well, we're still not gonna let you face him alone, Reb," Murphy replied before an argument could erupt. "He brought himself in a passel of cowboys and his trail boss was asking questions 'bout you all over town."

Koko nodded thoughtfully. "That does sound like he's here to cause trouble all right. But, um... who's looking after the town? If all of you are out here with me," she continued as she watched comprehension dawn in their eyes, "who is watching out for your wives and children?"

"The Army," Stephen answered promptly. "I stopped in and spoke to Clemmons. He assured me they'd keep an eye on things while we were gone."

"Clemmons? Why not Spencer?"

"He was in a closed door meetin'. I think it was with Washburn."

"You think?"

"Hard to say with the door closed," Murphy responded impatiently. "But I heard raised voices." He shrugged again. "A little odd, now that I think about 'cause it sounded more like anger than grief. Might oughta shoulda checked that out a little bit."

"Too late to worry about it now," Koko commented. "Come join us around the fire and we'll see if we can figure out what we need to do now."

"Why do we need to do anything, Reb? I trust Clemmons - he'll make sure Spence knows."

Koko shook her head, not sure how to convey her doubts about Spencer. Until recently, she'd had none, but then again, until recently her interaction with the Army Colonel had been fairly limited. They knew of one another, exchanged greetings in the saloon, but most of Koko's interaction remained between her and Stephen Murphy.

"Where's Donoma?" the Marshal asked, bringing her out of her brown study. Koko motioned to the north.

"Talking to her brother."

Murphy's eyebrows rose, but he left well enough alone. He figured he'd hear about it eventually if he needed to know. If not... well, it wasn't like there wasn't plenty on his plate already. Koko made the introductions around and then they all sat and started discussing possibilities.



"Go away, Donoma. I do not want to talk to you right now."

"Well, I am not going anywhere so you let me know when you are ready to talk about it."

Honaw turned his back to her and Donoma took the opportunity to look up at the stars. Honaw wondered at the complete silence and shifted enough to catch the look on her face. There was happiness there... something that had been missing for five very long cycles. But more than that, there was peace. He sighed.

"Why, ka'eskone? Why do you not want to return home with us?"

"I am not sure I can explain well enough for you to understand, Honaw."

"Try, Donoma Chepi. I need to understand."

Donoma turned back towards the stars, gazing at them with a small smile on her face. Honaw watched her, wondering what special magic the lights in the sky held for his sister. "All my life," she began softly, "I have been part of the People... part of the whole that make up our clan. They gave me a home and a family and they are very important to me. I have always tried to give my best back to the People, sharing my sight with the elders and becoming a healer to those who needed one, even when my first priority was Koko."


"When Koko left, the People were all I had and I put everything I had... everything I was... into the People. They were my whole world... my sole focus."

Honaw shrugged. "I know, ka'eskone. I was there; I saw it all."

Donoma sighed. "I cannot do that now, Honaw. Koko comes first, last and always for me. I still love the People and they will always be a part of my family, but Koko is my life. I cannot return to the People in the capacity I left - I am no longer that person. And I am not sure the People would understand the change."

"Why? We are not stupid, Donoma."

"No, Honaw. The People are not stupid. But this is not about intelligence nor is it about the wisdom of our fathers. This is about how things have changed. Things would not be like they were when Koko lived among us before, nor would they be like they were while she was gone from us." She paused. "I am not saying we will not visit and I am not saying we will not one day return to the People one day to remain. But for now... for right now, Koko and I need to be alone together for a while. We need to adjust to life as an us without anyone else's expectations on us."

"Donoma, we all have had to live with expectations from the People as we have grown up. It is the way of life."

"Not like this, Honaw." He cocked his head and waited. Donoma sighed again and turned to face him. "When you and Gaagii were joined, nothing much changed except she had a fire and a home of her own that she shared with you instead of with her Nahko'e and Neho'e. Her responsibilities did not change and neither did yours. She remained a gatherer and provider - you remained a warrior."

"Yes, so?"

"It would not be that way for me. I would no longer be healer and seer to the People. I would return to my role as warrior advisor to Koko Kanti. And she is no longer the warrior you knew growing up."

"You did not see her in action against the white men who threatened us."

"You have not seen her in any other way. To you she has always been a warrior. To me she is much more. And I do not think the People would not accept what she is now. She is more than just People, Honaw - she is white also. And she has a life among the white man just as she had one among us."

"And what of you, Donoma? Do you have a life among the white man?"

"I have a life wherever Koko Kanti is, Honaw. And that may be among the People again one day. But not now. Now we need to be us together... just for a little while. When all this is over, I just want a little time to be with her - to rediscover the people we are together."

Honaw stepped up to Donoma and put his hands on her shoulders. "I think I understand, ka'eskone. I will try to explain to Nahko'e and Neho'e, but I am not certain I can make them recognize the truth alone."

Donoma smiled. "Koko and I will explain it to them, Honaw. Neho'e will understand; Nahko'e will not be happy but she will accept it."

"You have seen?"

Donoma shook her head. "I just know. Now we need to return. I believe we have guests."

Honaw cocked an eyebrow but Donoma didn't answer. She simply headed back to Koko and the fire. Honaw jogged to catch up and together they walked back.


Washburn returned to the town just as the sun touched the horizon. He drew in a deep breath of spring air, then stepped inside the hotel. Carver was no longer behind the desk and none of Washburn's own cowboys were to be seen. Blowing out a frustrated breath, Mordecai walked back out into the cooling air and stuck his hands in his pockets as he leaned against the railing. Something odd was going on.

He looked around the town, trying to pinpoint what had set off his intuition, but couldn't find anything out of place. Then his eyes landed on the saloon brothel.

He growled.

"Oh, they better not've," he muttered to himself. Mordecai pushed away from the railing and headed across the street.

It was quiet, which Washburn found strange. He'd never heard of a quiet saloon before. Even on week nights like this one was, there were always rowdy men making noise inside - getting drunk, playing cards, being chatted up by the whores who worked there. So the silence was a bit unnerving.

Unfortunately, the curtains over the glass windows had been pulled and he couldn't see in, forcing him to go inside. When he did so, he was met by a mountain of a woman with the darkest skin he'd ever seen. He just looked at her while Big Mama glared at him.

"We's closed," she said in a tone that brooked no argument. He snorted his disbelief and she walked right into his personal space. "I said we's closed."

He stepped back slightly and her eyes lit in triumph. It made him angry. "Who'dya think you are, nigger woman? This is a bar and I want a drink. Now get outta my way," pushing against her before finding his hand caught. Her eyes bore into his.

"We. Is. Closed."

"Is there a problem, Big Mama?"

"No, Miss Kitty," she called back to the woman on the stairs. "This gent'man was jus' leavin'."

Mordecai looked back and forth between the two women and finally shrugged his defeat. He had the answer he'd come in for. With a snarl he shoved his way back out the door. He noted Riggins coming back towards him from the direction of the church schoolhouse and crossed back over to the hotel. Maybe he'd have some answers, because Washburn couldn't imagine Riggins going to church for any other reason.

Riggins stepped onto the porch and leaned against the opposite post from his boss. Mordecai looked at him impatiently. "Well?"

"Stone's not here," he replied succinctly. "But it appears that all the able-bodied men in town have departed - headed out to parts unknown. I'm bettin' that they've gone lookin' for Stone."

"And left the town unprotected?"

"Well, the Army is still here."

Washburn laughed without a trace of humor. "I can take care of the Army." He scraped a hand across his chin thoughtfully. "We should be able to make this work in our favor... force Stone to come to us. That will give us an added advantage."

"What're we gonna do?"

"Tonight? We're gonna have a bite of supper and a good night's sleep. Tomorrow will be soon enough to figure out a way to get Stone back here without actually killin' too many of the townsfolk here." He chuckled again. "We do it right... no one'll have to die... 'ceptin' for Stone and her little whore. And I don't think too many here will mourn her passin' for very long."

Riggins wasn't sure he agreed, but he didn't comment. Instead he turned and held the door open for Washburn to enter the hotel ahead of him. Neither man noticed Kitty step out of the shadows nor head down the street towards the church, determination in her stride.


Daniel Hawkins looked up from his desk when Kitty flung the door open. He sat back when she leaned over his desk, fire burning in her eyes.

"Daniel, we need to talk."

He motioned her to a chair and waited for her to speak.

Chapter XLIV

It had been a long, long time since Daniel Hawkins had ridden trail as he was attempting to do now. He'd been something of a rebel rouser growing up and had learned to follow the signs to keep away from trouble when things started to get too hot. Now he was trying to remember lessons he'd deliberately put from his mind when he'd become a preacher.

There'd been a fight with his wife when he'd left. She more than any one else in town had trouble accepting Reb Stone as anything other than an abomination against everything she thought God intended a woman to be. Daniel wondered what secrets Mary was keeping from him to make her opinions of Stone so vehement.

He had prevailed however, when he stressed the danger she and the other women of the town could possibly be in given what Kitty had overheard. And despite Mary's disdain for Kitty and the other whores because of their profession, even she had to admit that none of them were prone to lying. In fact, in her opinion, they were generally disgustingly honest if only for the shock value it provided them.

So she'd packed him a lunch and kissed him goodbye before closing the door behind him and going to their bed alone.

Now he rode along in the dark, pondering Kitty's words even as he looked for signs of the way the Marshal and his posse had traveled earlier. Fortunately, it was a large group and they had made no real effort to hide their tracks. Daniel had to wonder at the wisdom of that particular circumstance, but he was smart enough to realize there was probably very little the Marshal could do about it, given that he had somewhat unwillingly accepted the help of his unlooked for troop of men.

He sighed with exhaustion - it had been years since he'd been able to go all day and all night too, and marriage had only added to that change. He rubbed at his burning eyes, hoping his horse was smart enough to continue to follow the tracks for a minute while he rested his eyes. The next time he opened them, the sun was just edging over the horizon and the horse had come to a complete standstill.

Daniel blinked and looked around, wondering what had caused his horse to stop and him to waken. Then he felt the chills skitter up his spine, recognizing that he was surrounded by some very unhappy looking Indians. He slowly raised his hands above his head, hoping that his surrender would keep him from dying long enough to allow him to get a message to Reb Stone. After that....

The natives didn't move, merely kept an eye on him. Daniel remained completely still and silent, waiting for something to happen. He was not stupid enough to believe he could do anything at the moment.

After a little while, the group parted though they never took their eyes from him. He wasn't really surprised to see Stone step from their midst, but he kept his hands raised as a precaution. A signal from Koko brought down the weapons aimed at Hawkins and at her nod he slowly lowered his hands as well.

"Reverend? What brings you out here?" Not unfriendly, but definitely not welcoming either.

He cleared his throat awkwardly. "A message from Kitty. She said you needed to know." He cleared his throat again. "She overheard Washburn and his trail boss Riggins talking. Seems they're looking to turn the town into some kind of a trap for you."

"What about the Army?"

"Washburn thinks he can handle the Army - control them somehow. I dunno if she knows how - she didn't share it with me. But he figures if he owns the town, you'll come to him and he'll have the advantage over you."

Koko ran a hand over her chin thoughtfully. "He might be right about that. Then again, he might not." She motioned him down from his horse. "C'mon and have some breakfast with us. Then we'll see if we can come up with anything to counteract whatever it is he's planning." Hawkins slid from his horse's back and Koko looked at him sharply. "Does anyone else know you're out here?"

"Only Mary," he replied instantly. "And I think I impressed upon her the danger of talking outta turn about this. At least I hope so." Koko threw a look at him and Daniel continued. "I didn't like the looks of those fellas. Riggins seemed like a fairly decent sort, but as long as he's tied up with Washburn...."

"What about Washburn set you off?" Murphy asked when Koko motioned Hawkins to a seat around the campfire. Most of the warriors were seated on one side and the Marshal's posse was on the other. Daniel took his place between Murphy and Honaw, accepting a mug of coffee with a sense of relief. His eyes were still scratchy and burning from a distinct lack of rest and the coffee was strong enough to make the hair on his arms stand up and take notice.

"I think," Hawkins said after several swallows of the hot liquid, "it was mostly his attitude. Obviously he came to town looking for trouble - he refused to let his cowboys visit the saloon. And despite my religious bent on the subject, I find that highly disturbing. You can't make me believe those boys aren't ready for a little action with the ladies. And he swaggered back from the fort like he already owned the place."

He took another sip and accepted a piece of buffalo jerky from Honaw with a grateful nod. "I was standing on the steps of the church just as he stepped outta the saloon. According to Kitty, he was checking the place out. Big Mama stopped him like a stone wall," chuckling at the imagery. "I didn't see him but a minute when Riggins left, but there's just something about him that don't set right with me."

"I'm thinkin' that if what you say is true, Reverend, and I don't doubt it is, then we've got ourselves a right fine mess of trouble. Question is, what're we gonna do about it?"

Murphy looked at Koko who realized every single eye was on her. "I will speak with Donoma." Without another word, she turned and walked away from the camp.

"What t'hell?" Murphy turned to Honaw and waited for an explanation. Honaw returned his gaze impassively and the Marshal felt compelled to expound on his query. "Honaw, where is Reb goin' and why does she need to talk to Donoma? Surely someone as delicate as Mrs. Stone can't be expected to understand the seriousness of the situation we're in."

"Donoma Chepi seer and warrior advisor to Koko Kanti. She will tell Koko what Great Spirit gives."

Murphy blinked. Whatever answer he'd expected, this hadn't even been close. "Are you tellin' me she can see the future?"

"Sometimes... if Great Spirit wishes to share knowledge."

"I'll be a son of a biscuit. That could come in real handy."

"Does... but only when knowledge is given. Not often."

"Do you think your Great Spirit shared with Mrs. Stone about this?" Daniel speaking this time and Honaw turned to look at him a little more clearly as he chewed the tough jerky. He wrinkled his nose at the white man's address of his sister. He understood why - Koko had been very patient in her explanation with the warriors about it. And he appreciated the respect it afforded Donoma in the white man's world. It was still disconcerting to hear her called so.

"Do not know. Only know she went on vision quest after Marshal arrived."

"Well, I hope t'hell somebody gives Reb an idea on how to deal with all this, 'cause I am right fresh outta ideas."

Honaw nodded but said nothing. Instead, he settled back to wait.


Koko walked swiftly but silently to the place where Donoma Chepi had chosen to make her quest. She remained in the same position Koko had seen her in many times before - sitting on her legs, hands on her thighs with palms upturned and eyes closed in peaceful repose. Koko did nothing to disturb her, but assumed the same position behind and slightly to the right of Donoma.

After a few minutes of light meditation, Koko opened her eyes to find Donoma looking at her with a tiny grin on her face. She couldn't stop the answering smile that graced her lips.

"I missed you last night, ka'eskone. The blanket was very cold without you."

"How would you know that, warrior? You sat in exactly the same spot and kept watch over me last night."

"You noticed that, did you?"

"Oh yes, Nutta. I felt you beside me even during my quest."

"Did you learn anything interesting?"

"Perhaps, but we need to return to the town. I will explain to you what I saw on the way. You will have time to consider the knowledge before we arrive. I do know that we should arrive under the cover of darkness. It will give us an advantage that Washburn expects to have for himself - the element of surprise."

"That is very wise, Donoma Chepi." Koko rose from her place smoothly, then extended a hand down to Donoma, helping her stand and steadying her on exhausted legs. "Will you be all right to travel, ka'eskone?"

"I will manage, Koko Kanti. We cannot delay our journey. To do so would mean death or hardship to those we call friends, and I do not want that to happen if we can prevent it."

Koko stared into Donoma's eyes and read the truth in them for herself. She blew out a breath and nodded. "Very well, Donoma. I do not want that either. Come. We will head back to our cabin so you can rest for a little while. We will leave from there in time to assure our arrival in town after darkness falls."

"That sounds like a good idea, warrior," Donoma conceded. "I am glad we are at the closest of the safe places you prepared for battle."

"As am I. I will have the men and warriors bunk down in the meadow - they will be safe enough there and it will give them the opportunity to get a little more rest as well. I do not think many got much rest last night - too anxious about the whole situation. Perhaps we will also be able to share a hot meal with them before we leave for town."

"I think I can manage some sort of stew or something. We have the supplies - it is simply a matter of finding a pot big enough to feed everyone."

They arrived back in the camp then and looked around to find every eye on them waiting expectantly. "Mount up," Koko commanded. "We'll return to our cabin to wait until we can leave to reach the town under the cover of darkness. Donoma has offered to prepare a hot meal and there's a meadow where you'll be able to rest in relative safety."

The men nodded their understanding and rose in one body to go to their horses. Making sure the fire was doused, Koko followed suit, riding up beside Donoma to lead her little band back towards a confrontation with Mordecai Washburn.


Mordecai Washburn opened his eyes just as the sun rose from its bed and started painting its way across the morning sky. He stretched, wincing as his back popped several times - this bed wasn't nearly as comfortable as the feather down one at his ranch, but if sleeping here for a few days would allow him the revenge he sought, then he would bear the discomfort stoically.

He lay still, working out the logistics of his plan. The first item on his agenda, after breakfast of course, would be to take care of the Army and assure that if he didn't have their complete cooperation and backing, at least they would not interfere in his right to justice. After that, he would do some scouting in the town... find the best places to put his men for an ambush if it became necessary. Despite his desire to eliminate Reb Stone himself and his expectation of doing so, he wanted to leave nothing to chance. The woman had been a bane to his family long enough and had already proven her elusiveness by the sheer fact that she continued to survive despite every effort to the contrary.

Satisfied he had a plan for his day, Washburn stretched again - this time enjoying the pull of muscles without the pain of realigning his spine. He rolled from his bed and washed his face, then headed downstairs to see what was for breakfast.

Riggins was already sitting at a small table with a plate in front of him and the rest of the cowboys occupied the two larger tables in the room. Washburn looked around curiously before taking the seat across from Riggins, wondering when he'd gotten so old that he was the last man to drag himself from the bed. Then he gave a mental shrug. It wasn't like he wasn't entitled to a sleep in once in a while, he supposed - especially given how draining this whole damned trip had been so far.

The woman brought out a full plate and set it in front of him, then filled his coffee cup. He nodded his thanks and picked up his fork to dig in, waiting until she had moved on to the other tables before looking at Riggins.

"Everything quiet?"

"Everythin's good, boss. The boys stayed in last night just like they were told and the townsfolk, while not sympathetic towards you, don't seem to be antagonistic towards you either. I think...." Riggins trailed off, not certain Washburn wanted to hear his thoughts on the subject.

"You think what, man?" shoveling more food into his mouth and making it clear he expected Riggins to fill the silence that was left between them.

"I think you'd be better served if the folks here didn't know they were bein' used against Stone. If they find out, it might cause them to rise up an' riot. Not sure we really want that." Riggins picked up his cooling coffee and took a large gulp.

Washburn continued to shovel and chew as he pondered Riggins' words. The man had a good point, and there was really no reason to stir people up early if he didn't have to. He really didn't want to hurt the folks in this town - they were simply a means to an end. And with the Army behind him....

He nodded his head and pushed his empty plate away, signaling the woman to refill his coffee. When she was done and had retreated to the kitchen, Washburn turned his attention back to Riggins.

"All right," he admitted. "You've got a good point. Tell the boys to lay low - groom the horses, take a ride out of town as long as they don't go too far, whatever - just stay out of trouble and out of sight. As soon as I have the Army on board, we'll siddown and figure out the quickest way to end this." He winced as another twinge went through his back. "I wanna get back home to my own bed."

Riggins nodded and made to stand. A hand on his arm caused him to look at Washburn with a question in his eyes. "I want you to go take a good look around town - see where we can put the boys when we get word that Stone is inbound. I was gonna do that myself, but I trust you to take care of it while I go deal with the Army."

"All right, boss. It might take me a while. I don't want the women here to get up in arms."

"Take your time. We'll have Stone brought in on our timetable. Once we're set and know how to proceed, I'll have the Army send a runner out to find her. I'm sure that'll cause her to come racing back. And if we're really lucky, we'll get that little Injun whore of hers I've heard so much about. Two Stones with one birdie blow," he added, laughing at his own twisted joke. "If I'm not at the fort, I'll be here. And if I'm not here when you get done, wait for me."

"Will do, boss." Then Riggins motioned to the cowboys, who rose as a single unit and followed him outside to get their instructions. Washburn drank the last of his coffee, then stood and headed out of the hotel and towards the fort. He had things to do.


Sergeant Jake Clemmons was in a bit of a quandary. He knew what he had overheard the day before and what it meant. The real question now was what to do with the information and who he could trust - not only to believe him, but to do the right thing about it.

Before he could come to any conclusions, Colonel Spencer walked in, greeting him good morning and continuing into his office. Clemmons rose from his seat and followed him in with a cup of coffee. Spence accepted if gratefully and took a sip before he spoke again.


"Quiet so far, sir. The staff meeting is at ten and you scheduled an inspection of 'B' barracks for this afternoon. The men of companies 'A' and 'D' are drilling today and 'C' company has the watch."

"Thank you, Sergeant. I need to draft a letter to the Secretary of the Army, so could you please see that I'm not disturbed for the time being? Just let me know about five minutes before the staff meeting is to start."

"Yessir." Clemmons closed the door behind him as he left and went to his desk, still pondering his dilemma.

For his part, Spencer went around the desk and took his seat. He had work to do.

For a little while, things continued to run smoothly and the Colonel was able to concentrate on drafting the letter he felt compelled to write. Then a noisy disturbance outside his office interrupted his concentration and he went to the door, jerking it open with more than a hint of annoyance. He saw Mordecai Washburn and his guts roiled with a sick sense of chagrin.

However, he put on his military game face and bellowed, "What is going on here?!?"

Clemmons snapped to attention. "Mr. Washburn demanded to see you, sir. I told him you were unavailable, but he refuses to take no for an answer."

Spencer turned to Washburn and dredged up the courage he should have shown long before. "I'm sorry, Mr. Washburn. My sergeant is right. I'm incredibly busy at the moment."

"You'll take the time to see me!" Mordecai fumed.

"Of course I will, just not this particular moment. I need to take care of Army business first. Why don't you join me for lunch?" Spencer extended his invitation courteously, though his eyes told a far different story. "We can talk about whatever is on your mind then and I'll be able to devote my entire attention to it."

Mordecai eyed Spencer disdainfully, his fury clear in his eyes. "Fine, Colonel. But I expect to be satisfied when I leave."

"We'll take care of you, sir. The Army takes care of its own and you lost two sons in its service. Now if you'll excuse me...." He gave a half-bow before closing his door once more. Washburn growled, but stomped away in a fit of pique. Clemmons just sat down dazedly shaking his head. Something was definitely going on here and he needed to find out what it was before it was too late - for any of them.

Chapter XLV

"I never realized how quickly one could become accustomed to decadence, warrior," Donoma said as she wearily stretched out on the thick mattress of their bed. The men had swiftly settled into the peaceful meadow and Donoma had started a savory stew in the largest cauldron Koko possessed. Even now its fragrance wafted from the campsite where the men were currently relaxing.

Now however, Donoma was falling into a deep sleep, trusting Koko's instincts to watch over them as the warrior wrapped herself around Donoma's smaller frame in a protective embrace.

Koko didn't respond - there was no reason to. Donoma was already asleep. Koko closed her eyes as well, letting her mind ease into a meditative trance where she could rest and still ponder the words Donoma had share with her on the ride.


"So what vision did the Great Spirit share with you, ka'eskone? Will we be successful?"

Donoma cut her eyes in Koko's direction, leveling a glare that should have caught her hair on fire. Koko raised a hand to make sure it wasn't actually burning and despite the seriousness of the situation, Donoma could not stop the snicker that escaped her lips. Koko smiled sheepishly and shrugged.

"Sorry, Donoma... I know better than to ask such a question, but...."

"I saw that if we arrive by night, we will have the element of surprise that Washburn expects to be his. I saw some Blue coats fighting with us and some Blue Coats fighting against us. We need to find the Blue Coats that would be our allies. I believe they will be the ones to ensure our victory."


Koko had nodded thoughtfully, but now that she thought about it, she wondered which Blue Coats would ally themselves with her and against their own. How was Washburn going to divide the Army? And who was going to jeopardize their career to keep from following orders?

The more she thought about it, the more she realized that Kitty had to be right about the Colonel. Only he would have the authority to issue the order to fight, but why? What did Spencer have to gain from taking up arms against the townspeople in order to assure that Mordecai Washburn got the vengeance he was seeking? And who, *who* would be man enough to stand up to those orders?

She would talk to Murphy on the ride into town. Maybe he could shed a little light on what they could expect and from whom.

First, though, she was going to enjoy the tranquility surrounding her in the presence of her mate. Tribulation would come again soon enough.


"So, Reverend... what's your take on all this? Surely this goes against everything you believe in."

Daniel looked around to see a number of eyes staring back at him. The warriors of the People had settled on one side of the meadow, listening to the conversation but making little contribution of their own. The townsmen on the other hand stopped speaking to pay close attention to the Marshal and pastor. Daniel Hawkins hadn't been nearly as vocal in his disapproval of Reb Stone or her bride as his wife and many of the other women in the town had been. But he hadn't stood up for her either.

So they were anxious to hear his thoughts now.

"I've never had anything against Reb Stone and I don't think Mordecai Washburn is in his right thinking mind to believe that he has a right to revenge where she is concerned. That said, I can't condone her marriage to another woman... and an Injun woman at that."

"Why?" Honaw demanded fiercely before Keez could think to stop him. "Why you think Donoma not good for Koko Kanti?"

Daniel looked bewildered. He hadn't even thought about the fact that the natives could understand him well enough to not only get angry with him, but argue back. "It... it goes against everything I know... everything I've been taught."

"Maybe you need better teacher. Great Spirit teaches us find beauty and wisdom in all things. We all children of Great Spirit."

"Then why do you fight?" Daniel asked reasonably. "If all are children of this Great Spirit of yours, why do you continue to fight one another?"

"Not all accept teachings - we fight to protect what ours... homes, families, life."

"And you believe Reb and Donoma should be mated."

"Not for me to choose - share heart, share soul - one together."

Daniel nodded. "I'll try to remember that." He looked squarely at Honaw. "I will tell you I don't believe they deserve the trouble that Washburn is tying to cause for them. Reb Stone has been a force for good in this territory. I don't want to see anything happen to her... or to Donoma for that matter. Personally, I'd just like for this to be over and done with sooner rather than later. Preferably without too many deaths."

"You do understand that Washburn is gonna have to die, right, Reverend? He's not gonna leave Reb alone until he's dead and buried."

"I know that, Marshal... doesn't mean I can't hope for a quick and bloodless resolution." Murphy just shook his head, but didn't comment. There were just some arguments that weren't worth having.


"'Bout Goddamn time!" Washburn roared when he was finally admitted into Spencer's office. He'd heard the bell ring signaling lunch and had burst in, expecting to be shown into the inner sanctum immediately. But the door had been locked and Clemmons hadn't been around to introduce him. No amount of raging and rattling the door had helped his cause and Washburn had sat down to wait him out. He had no way of knowing that Spencer always ate last, ensuring that his men were fed first. It was a small gesture, but one that had earned him respect from those that served under him.

When the second bell rang, Spencer opened his door and Washburn pushed his way in with vulgarity. "Where's lunch?" he demanded.

"All the men should have been served now. The second bell is my call to the mess hall. It means the men have been fed and now I can eat."

"Are you telling me the leader of the outpost doesn't rate private service? That you eat the sloppy seconds and leftovers?" Washburn guffawed in disbelief.

"No. I'm telling you that by allowing the men to eat first, it raises their respect for me as a leader. It shows them I'm willing to look out for them."

Washburn snorted. "You keep believing that, boy." That ended the conversation and they crossed the compound in silence. When they reached the mess hall, Washburn held the door open and motioned Spencer in front of him with a flourish. "After you, boy... by all means."

Spencer stepped in and silence fell except for the scraping of chairs as the men rose in a single wave. "As you were," he said, gesturing them back to their seats. He moved to the empty table that was reserved for him, waiting for Washburn to join him. Spencer indicated one chair while assuming a seat in the other.

Mordecai grunted but took the seat he was offered. Spencer waited until there were plates in front of both of them before he spoke.

"Now what exactly can I do for you, Mr. Washburn? I thought we had everything settled yesterday."

"I'd prefer to speak privately," looking around the still busy mess hall pointedly.

"Mr. Washburn," Spencer said confidently and quietly enough that he would not be overheard, "despite your loss, the United States Army is not here to be at your beck and call. I do have other work that needs attending. Now...." He stopped speaking and winced when Washburn's hand covered his wrist and squeezed more than was necessary to gain his attention

"Now you listen to me, boy," clutching tightly and ignoring Spencer's wince of pain. "I want my revenge against Reb Stone and you're gonna make damn sure I get it. So you can either provide the men I need to hold the town or stay the hell outta my way."

"And if I don't?" Spencer asked calmly.

"You ain't got the balls to do otherwise," Mordecai sneered. "Or you'd have already done something. Besides, if you don't, I'll make sure that the little woman you're sweet on is the first to suffer for your stupidity." He grinned maliciously at the look of surprise etched on Spencer's face. "Don't ever think you can get one over on me, boy. I been around a long, long time... with good reason."

"You wouldn't...."

"You wanna try me, boy? I got way less to lose than you do. I know you got men in your command that don't mind getting their hands a little dirty - they've been wrangling horses for me right out from under the Army's nose for years."

"I'll see what I can do. I won't order this, but if I can find volunteers, I'll send them your way. Otherwise, I won't interfere."

"See that you don't," Washburn commanded with a final squeeze before releasing Spencer's hand. "I'll have my revenge on that woman one way or another. You don't wanna get in my way."

The Colonel shuddered at the look of madness that stared back at him from Mordecai Washburn's eyes. He wondered how long the man had been crazy, then realized it didn't matter. "So," he asked after clearing his throat and leaning back in his seat, "what exactly are you planning?"

Washburn shook his head. "That don't concern you. You just make sure to stay outta my way and no one but Stone and her little whore'll get hurt. You get in my way and the blood of everyone who dies'll be on your hands. And people will die - I promise you that."

"What's to stop me from arresting you right now?"

Washburn chuckled and the sound sent a chill skittering down Spencer's spine. "I have a friend keeping an eye on your mama, boy. Someone who needs to hear from me regularly. You'd hate for anything to happen to her."

The Colonel's face suffused with blood, turning it an alarming shade of red. "You wouldn't!!" he growled.

"Try me," Washburn invited gleefully. "Now do we understand one another?"

"Perfectly," Spencer spat between clenched teeth.

"Good," putting his fork down and wiping his mouth with surprising civility. "I thank you for lunch, but I need to get going. Things to do, you know." He pushed his chair back from the table, then looked at Spencer again. "When I have things set, I'll need you to send someone out to fetch Stone to me. Shouldn't be but a couple days."

Spencer nodded but didn't speak. He was afraid his voice would crack in his rage.

"Good - I'll let you know." Washburn turned and walked out of the mess hall and headed back to town.

Spencer rubbed a hand over his face then signaled for the server to collect Washburn's plate. Then he attacked his food with stolid determination.


"Ya know, Stone," Stephen Murphy spoke around a mouthful of food. "I'm startin' to think I should hate you." Koko blinked blue eyes and looked at Donoma before turning back to the Marshal with a questioning gaze. "I mean, it's not enough you got a beautiful wife," watching the blush crawl up Donoma's sun-kissed skin. "But you had to go and get one who could cook straight off."

Donoma and Koko exchanged glances and then began laughing. The warriors took up the effort and only the white men were left wondering what was so humorous about the Marshal's words. After noting the quizzical looks being directed their way, Koko cleared her throat awkwardly and tried to quell the laughter. It took a moment or two and she was unable to maintain eye contact with Donoma, but after a short time, she was able to hold Murphy's eyes again.

"Sorry," she said with the slightest tremor in her voice. "You're right... Donoma is a wonderful cook, and it was amazing to have that in my life again. But she did have to learn, Stephen. She has been cooking for a number of years. It's not something she just started doing after we were joined."

Murphy cut his eyes in Donoma's direction, only to see her nodding her agreement. "Not always pretty," she confirmed succinctly, causing Murphy to choke on his food.

"Well, this is very good, Mrs. Stone." The rest nodded enthusiastically.

"I don't eat this good now an' I been married for ten years," one of the men commented. The rest snickered, including the warriors. They had all been there at some point.

"So once we've eaten, are we headin' out?"

Koko looked up at the sky. "Another hour. We don't wanna get there too early. Besides, it'll take that long to clean everything up before we leave," motioning to the dishes they were all using.

"All right, boys," Murphy said as he stood. "You heard the boss. Let's get this stuff cleaned up and then Reb can tell us how we're gonna bring Washburn down."


"I gots me a bad feelin' 'bout dis, Miss Kitty," Big Mama commented as they sat around the kitchen table. Kitty had refused to open the saloon for business with Washburn in town and while they were all enjoying the unexpected time off, it made for a very odd situation. The women of the town had followed her example and kept the remainder of the businesses closed, contributing to the ghost town feeling that was prevalent throughout the town.

Kitty nodded her head. "Me too, Big Mama. I don't see much good comin' of all this. I just hope Daniel found Reb. Otherwise it could get real ugly, real quick."

"You really think Reb'll be able to help us out?"

Kitty smiled. "You really think she'd be able to stay away?"

Big Mama chuckled, her chest heaving with laughter. "Uh uh. Dat'n gots a thing for trouble."

"Wonder how Donoma puts up with it?"

"Honey, I think Donoma's drawn to it as well. How's else you'd be 'splainin' Reb?"

Kitty laughed heartily. "Good point. Wonder if Donoma'll be coming along?"

Big Mama snorted. "Can ya see dat chile being left behin'? Regardless of what Reb be wantin'?"

"No. This could be very interestin'."

"I'm thinkin' ya can count on dat."


Darkness had long since fallen when the town finally came into sight. The men had been given their instructions and silently separated to head to their own homes. The warriors followed Koko's silent directions, splitting up and making their way to various roofs and other lookout areas they would be using to defeat Washburn.

Murphy left them, heading straight to his office where he had a little area in the back for living. Donoma and Koko continued on down the road to the saloon, confident Kitty would let them in.

It was dark - something Koko had never seen - so she went around back to the kitchen and rapped lightly on the door. Big Mama snatched the door open, rolling pin in hand. When she realized who was standing there, a broad smile broke the solid black of her face and she opened the door wider to let them both come in. Koko motioned to their horses and Big Mama nodded, gesturing to the small stable behind the brothel. It was normally used for clients, but as there were none at the moment....

Koko took both bridles, ignoring the pointed look she got from Donoma and ushering the smaller woman into the kitchen with one hand before heading to the stable with the horses in tow. Donoma crossed her arms and huffed, but went into the kitchen. Big Mama put down her rolling pin and poured up two glasses of milk, then set a plate of cookies on the table between them.

She nudged the plate in Donoma's direction and raised an expressive eyebrow. Donoma chuckled at the face - it reminded her of Litonya during much of her growing up years. Both of Big Mama's eyebrows went up at the sound and she voiced her question aloud.

"Whatcha laughin' at, chile?"

Donoma's laughter morphed into a smile and she picked up a cookie and nibbled after another pointed glance. "You remind me of Nahko'e. Same face."

Big Mama frowned thoughtfully over Donoma's words then allowed a smile to cross her face. "All mamas be dat way. Keeps de young'uns in line."

"Works good," Donoma agreed succinctly. Then the door opened and Koko walked in just as Kitty and Ginger came down the stairs.

"Guess we'll be needin' more milk," Big Mama sighed as she got up to get more glasses. The rest sat down and waited for Koko to fill them in on what was going on.

Chapter XLVI

Washburn came downstairs early the following morning to find Riggins already sitting at the same table he'd been sitting at the morning before. He took the seat across from his foreman and steepled his fingers in front of his face while he waited for Mrs. Carver to pour his coffee. He nodded his thanks and she moved off.

"I spoke with Spencer," he said tersely. "He's gonna send me over some volunteers - we need to be ready for them. I want you to send the boys around... find the best places to stake out so we can hold the town when the men return. I'd rather keep this from becoming a bloodbath if we can help it."

"All right, boss."

"Tell 'em to plan for a siege - they could be there for a day or two while we wait for Stone."

"You want 'em to set up now?"

Washburn considered for a moment then shook his head. "No - just have 'em find the best places to ensure we can hold the town for as long as we need to. Long enough for me to get my justice from Stone. They can start camping out once we send for her."

"You really think she'll come runnin'... knowing it's a trap?"

Washburn chuckled. "I'm sure she will. One thing you learn about do-gooders, Riggins - they can't resist the opportunity to play hero. If she thinks she can save lives by showing up here... even knowing it's a trap... she'll be here. It's in her nature."

"And what about the townspeople?"

"What about 'em? The men are gone and the women won't interfere... especially with the Army on our side. This should be quick and fairly painless. And the lawman won't be able to say a word because it'll all be open and aboveboard."

Riggins looked skeptical, but kept his mouth shut. Somehow he didn't think angering Washburn any further would help matters, but he silently wondered when things had gotten out of control. They had certainly made a lot more sense when Mordecai had explained them back on the ranch. Now, however, Riggins was becoming less and less sure of that and more and more certain that his boss had slipped into madness.

Riggins stood and clapped his hat onto his head. "I'll round up the boys and give 'em their instructions. You got any idea when all this might go down, boss?"

"Couple days, I think. Soon's I get them Army volunteers, I'll have Spencer send for Stone. Then it's just a matter of waiting for her to get here."

They never saw Matthew Carver slip out the back way and into the barn to wait.


Before the sun had peeked above the horizon, Sergeant Jake Clemmons had talked to a number of men he trusted - men he knew would favor Reb Stone over Mordecai Washburn... especially when they heard the story he had to tell them. Many of them found his accusation of the Colonel a little beyond the pale, but they had all trusted Stone with their lives at one time or another and found that trust well-founded. In fact, many appreciated being able to repay her efforts on their behalf.

So in the coming dawn, they mounted up and headed into the town, determined to protect the town - and Reb Stone - from Mordecai Washburn. They had no way of knowing things were already in motion.


Colonel John Spencer looked at himself in the mirror by the flickering light of the lamp. He had sent his boy away this morning, not desiring any witnesses as he prepared himself for this particular day. He'd finished his letter to the Secretary of the Army after his luncheon with Washburn, resigning his commission and explaining the reasons why. He had no doubt he'd end up in stocks before it was all said and done, but for the first night in years, he'd slept the sleep of the innocent.

Now in the pre-dawn, he dressed in his finest uniform, wanting to make a statement even Mordecai Washburn could understand. He would not stop Mordecai from challenging Reb Stone - it was the only way the nightmare could end now. But he would make sure that the Army was ready to deal with whatever aftermath there was... especially if Washburn got lucky and Stone died. He suspected the town would riot.

Either way, Washburn was a walking dead man.

He headed to his office, surprised not to find Clemmons already there. Spencer could count on one hand the number of times he'd beaten the sergeant to the office. Not wanting to wait for his arrival, Spencer sent a runner out to his captains, calling them into his office for a meeting. It was time they knew what was going on - at least partially. There were some parts he wasn't willing to share with them. His shame would be public knowledge soon enough.

It didn't take them long to gather, and it only took a few minutes for them to settle down once he began to speak.

"All of you have heard the rumors accusing Reb Stone of being a horse thief. Some information has come to my attention indicating that the thief is in fact connected to Mordecai Washburn, but at the moment, I don't have enough conclusive proof to arrest him. However, I do know that the man is intent on seeking revenge on Stone for the death of his two sons."

"Colonel, Reuben's death was brought on by a challenge from Reuben himself. And Leroy was trampled by a horse. How are either of those Stone's fault?"

"They're not," Spencer agreed succinctly. "But Washburn is determined to have his day with her - claims it's the justice he is owed as the father of two sons dead at her hand. And we all know that Stone won't dismiss his challenge. He will continue to hunt her until she answers his challenge."

"So what do we do? As far as I know, she isn't even in town."

"I figure to send someone after her to bring her back and have the rest of the men on rotating shifts to keep an eye on things until she gets back. I don't think Washburn is stupid enough to do anything to the town or the people there, but I'd rather be safe than sorry. He seems more than a little obsessed with Stone and I don't want her absence to provoke him into doing something dumb."

"I'll set up a schedule," Spencer's second in command volunteered. "We'll put the men on a four hour rotating schedule with an hour overlap to ensure there is always plenty of coverage."

Spencer nodded. "That sounds good, Robert. With any luck this won't last too long, but have the men prepare as if it was going to be a long campaign. I think things will move swiftly once Stone returns to town, but if she is out hunting another bounty, it could be a while before she's found. We don't want the townsfolk getting antsy and we don't want Washburn getting stupid."

"Why don't we just arrest him?" from the youngest captain. Smiles and snickers were quickly hidden and every man in the room focused his attention on the table in front of him. Spencer cleared his throat.

"Mordecai Washburn is a well-respected and very influential man in any number of circles. We can't arrest on suspicion... we need proof. If we can find that, we can arrest him. Until then, it is too risky. It's asking for bad things to happen - to us and to the town. So for now just keep your eyes and ears open."

"Meanwhile," Spencer continued, "I'm going to go talk to the Marshal. With any luck, he'll be able to find some proof. Make our job easier. Major, send out our fastest rider to Stone's place. Maybe she and her mate are there - or at least maybe the mate will know where we can find her." He paused. "Actually, send a small contingent - if Stone isn't home, most can try to pick up her trail while the rest report back here. That way we'll know to send out more search parties if necessary."

"Where does she live, Colonel?"

"Murphy knows. Send the fastest man to me - Murphy can give him directions and he can lead the rest."

The Major nodded. "Very well, sir. I'll have them ready to go within the hour."

"Fine. Hopefully it won't take long to settle this - one way or another."

"You think Stone will lose?"

"I think Washburn will try to stack the deck. I just hope we can prevent him from doing any real damage."

"We will, Colonel. He may be an important man where he comes from, but this is our home. He doesn't get to come in here and start making his own rules."

"Agreed. But first we need to find Stone. You all have your assignments. Move out."

As one body the men rose from the table and filed out the door. Only when he was alone again did he sit back in the chair and contemplate the bizarreness of fate that now hung over his head like Damocles' sword. He hoped this would end sooner rather than later.

With a sigh, Spencer rose from his seat and headed to the stockyard. He wanted to be ready to go when the chosen rider arrived. There were still things to do.


"Are you ready, warrior?" Donoma asked as she combed her fingers through Koko's thick hair. Koko purred in pure pleasure for a moment, then rolled over until she was laying on her side. One arm held Donoma at the hips possessively while she propped her head up on the other.

"Oh yes, ka'eskone. Once Washburn is dealt with, we can begin the next chapter of our lives together. We will go where none can find us and where no one will think to look. But he must be taken care of first. I will not have my past hanging over our future."

"Do you really believe he would pursue us, Koko?"

"I do," Koko replied without hesitation. "I believe this has gone beyond justice or even revenge. I think Washburn is obsessed. The facts no longer matter - the only thing he is focused on is killing me."

"He is in for something of a surprise then. I will not allow that to happen," she added with a matter-of-factness in her expression that was belied by the fierceness of her tone.


"NO, Koko!" Donoma's green eyes betraying her fury and fear even as she slid from the bed and Koko's grasp. "I will not allow Mordecai Washburn to take from me what is mine. I have only just found you again. I will not lose you... especially not to a man who has no honor and no scruples."

"Why do you say that, ka'eskone? You have never even met the man," sitting up and swinging her legs over the edge of the bed as she watched Donoma pace mere feet from her.

"But I did meet his sons. One who shot me for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the other who challenged you for his own petty jealousies and desire for revenge. A man who raises his sons with so little regard for others obviously has no moral code worth mentioning."

"You are very wise, ka'eskone," standing and taking Donoma into her embrace.

"I am very honest, Koko Kanti. I will not allow Mordecai Washburn to destroy us."

"Do not worry, Nutta. He is not man enough to do so alone, and with the warriors already in place to ensure he cannot use his men to kill me from behind...."

"I will still be there to watch your back, Nutta. I will not let you face this alone."

"That is not the way of things, Donoma. When I call him out...."

"I will be right there. Do not ask me not to be, warrior. It is my place."

Koko sighed. She should have known it would not be easy to convince Donoma otherwise. She tightened her hold on Donoma's body until she could feel her heartbeat. "It is your place, ka'eskone. But you will need to stand on the sidewalk away from the line of fire... not in the middle of the street with me."

"No, Koko Kanti. I will stand beside you. It is my place," her voice fierce and adamant, poking Koko's chest with her finger to emphasize her point.

"Ka'eskone, I cannot put you in danger like that."

"You are not putting me there, warrior. It is where I need to be."

"But you are putting me in danger, Donoma," Koko offered softly. She held on as her words sunk into Donoma's consciousness and hurt filled the green eyes while she tried to pull away. "Ka'eskone," keeping one arm firmly around Donoma's waist even as she cupped Donoma's face with her other hand to bring their eyes level. Donoma kept her eyes firmly on the ground. "Donoma," she coaxed softly, biting her lip when watery green eyes finally met hers.

"Oh beloved," she whispered. "I did not mean to hurt you, but the truth is that if you are standing beside me, Washburn will use that. He will take aim at you instead of me and I cannot live with the possibility of you being hurt... or worse... because of me. If his focus is solely on me, he will be the only one to die today."

"You are so certain."

"I am, ka'eskone. You yourself commented on his lack of honor. Do you not think he would use you against me?"

"He might try, but he will not succeed. I will not allow it. But for your peace of mind, I will stand with Kitty and Big Mama."

"Thank you, Donoma."

"Just make certain you eliminate the threat to us, warrior. I have no desire to live with this hanging over our heads for the rest of our lives. I want to spend our life together living."

Koko smiled. "That is reason enough, ka'eskone." She dipped her head and took possession of Donoma's mouth until she felt them slipping to the floor. They separated, breathing hard and stared at one another with heavily-lidded eyes. "As is that," Koko added when she could speak again.

"Remember that, beloved. We have unfinished business now."

"You are a cruel woman, Donoma Chepi."

"Yes, but now you have the motivation you need to finish this." She eased out of Koko's arms and pulled her nightgown over her head. "You should get dressed, Koko Kanti. Mordecai Washburn does not get to see you as I do... and neither does anyone else."

"Possessive much, ka'eskone?" Koko asked with a grin as she began to dress.

"Only with things that matter, warrior," Donoma confessed impishly. "Now let us go put an end to this."

"After breakfast," Koko replied. "Big Mama will not let us start the day without it." Donoma took Koko's hand and together they headed downstairs.


Clemmons led his small brigade around to the back of the Marshal's office, not wanting to announce their presence to Washburn and the town. They dismounted and went into the stable - it was then that they realized Murphy's horse was there. They looked at Clemmons.

"I think it means the Marshal has already returned; I believe he left immediately after speaking to me. But in that case, the men of the town are here and probably Reb Stone as well."

"You'd be right about that, Sergeant," came a gravelly voice from the door. "Can I ask what the Army is doin' in my stable?"

"I told you we'd keep an eye on things, Marshal. Jones here was supposed to come find you... get directions to Stone's place. I think there's somethin' you need to be aware of." Clemmons explained what he'd overheard in the Colonel's office. "So we decided to make sure Washburn can't use the town to his advantage. The folks here deserve better than to be pawns in his game."

"What do you plan to do?"

"We plan to keep him honest," looking up at the roofline of the buildings along the street.

"In that case, maybe I oughtta introduce ya to the warriors of the People - Reb and Donoma's friends. They've already staked out spots, but I'm bettin' they wouldn't mind a little extra firepower."

"Lead the way, Marshal. We don't plan to miss out on this."


"Ah, Colonel," Washburn welcomed snidely as he stepped into the hotel dining room. The sun, now fully up, was slowly making its way across the sky and lighting the room enough that Mrs. Carver walked out of the kitchen and blew out the lanterns before collecting them. Washburn waited until she was done before he returned his attention to Spencer. "Have you brought my volunteers?"

"There are no volunteers, Washburn. Too many are indebted to Stone and the rest feel no debt to you at all. You're on your own."

"Fine," Washburn snarled. "Just keep them outta my way. This'll be over in a day or two and then you can go back to business as usual. Don't know why you didn't take care of this damned woman in the first place."

"Because she was never a threat. Until your sons went up against her and accused her of their own misdeeds, she wasn't a problem."

"That's enough, boy!"

Whatever Spencer had been going to say in reply was lost when Reb Stone called out from the street. "Washburn!! C'mon out here! We've got business to settle!!"

Mordecai turned to Spencer in a rage. "When the hell did she get back?? I'm not ready!!" He pushed the colonel aside and rushed to the window to find Stone standing in the middle of the street directly across from him. He looked back at Spencer. "Find Riggins and have him get the men into place."

"I don't think so, Washburn - you're on your own," carefully enunciating his words. Then he crumpled in shock when Washburn put a slug in his chest, creeping right into his personal space to muffle the sound when he pulled the trigger.

"That's one problem solved," Mordecai said dispassionately, spitting at Spencer's body in contempt. Then he walked calmly into the street. The time had come to eliminate Reb Stone, once and for all.

Chapter XLVII

Mordecai Washburn stepped out of the hotel into the street, carefully observing his surroundings. Reb Stone stood across from him, just off the sidewalk in front of the brothel. Her whore was just behind her, sandwiched between the old nigger woman and the madam whore. He sneered - he'd have a good shot at her once Stone walked to the middle of the street.

He looked around, noting the Injuns and soldiers who returned his regard from the rooftops of every building in the town. He growled, realizing Spencer had, in the end, betrayed him. Further investigation revealed the men in town had returned and were standing in the doorways of their businesses.

Washburn didn't see Riggins or any of his other cowboys and he smirked. Had they managed to get into position behind the Injuns and soldiers already in place? Were they getting into position, recognizing that trouble had arrived before they were fully prepared to meet it? He had no way of knowing, but Mordecai Washburn knew he'd run out of time.

"Stackin' the deck a little, Stone?" motioning around them. "'Fraid you couldn't handle an old man by yourself?"

"Hedgin' my bets, Washburn. I'm happy to take care of you by myself - the rest are here to make sure you don't try to cheat." There was a scuffle on the roof above them and Reb grinned. "See, my warrior advisor looks out for me; she's never steered me wrong. She didn't trust your honor."

Washburn snorted. "You let your little whore advise ya? Damn, Stone... that's rich." Whatever else he might have said was lost in a choking sound as Reb grabbed Mordecai Washburn by the balls and twisted, smiling as he grimaced in reaction.

"You watch your mouth, Washburn. You don't have to like or respect me, but you disrespect her again and I'll take you apart with my hands. I don't need a gun to beat you. You got me?"

She didn't even see him move, but she felt the burn of the knife as he swiped it against her midsection. She clenched her hand once more before she released her grip on his manhood and stepped back, watching him slide to the ground. Reb turned to Donoma and rubbed her hand across her belly, wincing when she scraped against cut skin.

She felt him move behind her before she saw it and she caught his arm, twisting until she heard a satisfying snap. Washburn screamed.

"Oh, that sounded painful, Mordecai. Does it hurt?" taunting him, throwing him from her.

"Bitch!" he growled through gritted teeth, holding his arm close to his body as he remained kneeling on the ground. Reb smirked and stepped away from him again, not turning her back. She glanced at Donoma and the expression on her face caused her to straighten and look at Washburn with serious intent.

"Why, Washburn? If you and your boys had just left me alone, it woulda never come to this. I wanna know why."

He struggled to his feet. "Why should I tell you, Stone? What's it gonna get me?"

"A quick, fairly painless death."

Washburn choked on his laughter, wincing at the pain that lanced through his body and shaking his head. "It'd be worth it to me to leave you wondering for the rest of your life." He gave another strangled chuckle. "Besides, who's to say you'd win?" letting his eyes slide to one side.

Reb heard the single cock of a revolver's hammer followed by multiple cocks of shotguns and pistols as every man in town - and some women - raised their own weapons. She arched her eyebrow at him. "Who's to say I wouldn't?"

"The beauty of this," Washburn croaked out as he struggled to stand upright, "is that I win either way," motioning to where Donoma stood. "She dies either way, and with all these guns shooting, you'll die with me... but not before you watch your whore die first."

Riggins stood behind Donoma, his six-shooter cocked and aimed steadily at her head. Koko met Donoma's eyes for a long moment. "You're makin' a number of mistaken assumptions, Washburn," Reb informed the man without letting her eyes leave Donoma's. "The first bein' that she needs my help to get out of this situation. You forget Donoma Chepi's a seer who was trained in the ways of the People. She doesn't need me."

"How fortunate," Washburn growled as he reached for his gun. Then a number of things happened simultaneously.

Donoma lifted her arm, throwing the knife she'd been palming even as Riggins shifted his aim to her left and pulled the trigger. Honaw and Keezheekoni let arrows fly from their bows. And Stephen Murphy didn't hesitate to shoot Mordecai Washburn in the back.

Time seemed to stand still as Washburn's body absorbed the various missiles that had been directed towards it and he realized that he was in fact dying. As that idea sank into his consciousness, his body slid to the ground and his last thought was malicious glee that Stone would never know why. Then he gurgled his last breath and died.

The silence that fell as Washburn dropped dead was complete - for a very long moment, not even the sound of breathing could be heard. Then Donoma ran to Koko and the tableau was broken by the movement, only to find a new one being created as everyone watched them come together in a timeless embrace.

The town and everyone in it faded away as their bodies met in a hug that melded them into a single being. Donoma clung to Koko, taking comfort in the heartbeat that thudded against her own and feeling her shaking slowly subside as the reality of Koko's solid warmth soaked into her bones.

Donoma pulled back just slightly, enough to allow her bring her hand up to Koko's face, gently tracing the planes and hollows she had grown to love so long ago. "You are all right, warrior?" she asked, remembering the cut Washburn had inflicted on Koko's belly.

"I am fine, ka'eskone. It is only a scratch." She cupped Donoma's cheek with one hand. "How are you, Nutta? What you did...."

"What I did I would do again without hesitation, Koko Kanti. He threatened what was mine."

Despite everything, Koko smiled. "Do you know how that makes me feel, Donoma? To know that you love me so much...." Donoma smiled.

"Of course I do, warrior. You do the same for me every day. Why would I do less?"

Koko pulled her in for another hug and Donoma surrendered herself willingly. Then their lips met and the silence broke into whoops and hollers from the cowboys, the whores and the businessmen. The women simply stared, not sure whether to be jealous of the love and passion so obviously on display or disgusted by the fact it was two women who shared it. Then it didn't matter as they separated sporting twin blushes at the cacophony of noise that surrounded them.

Stephen Murphy was the first to approach them, stepping over Washburn's body and ushering them towards the saloon doors. A nod of his head garnered him several attentive businessmen, including Matthew Carver and the Reverend Daniel Hawkins.

"Take Washburn's body to the undertaker and then...." A shrill scream from the hotel cut him off mid-sentence. "Carver, you come with me. The rest of you look after Washburn, except you Reverend. I need you to find Sergeant Clemmons and Donoma's brother Honaw and bring them to the saloon."

The men nodded and scattered to do his bidding. Koko and Donoma were already inside the brothel when Murphy and Carver entered the hotel. Matthew immediately crossed to his wife, taking her in his arms and turning her away from John Spencer's dead body sprawled on the floor. Murphy knelt down and pulled the colonel's eyelids down over his eyes, wishing there was something he could do about the gaping mouth.

"Matt, take your wife into the kitchen, then I need your help to move him over to the undertaker as well. I'll get some of the townsfolk in here to help clean up the mess," motioning to the blood currently sluggishly spreading across the floor.

"I'm all right, Marshal," the woman replied shakily. "I wouldn't turn down some help though."

"Yes ma'am," he answered respectfully. "Let us get him moved and we'll see about getting you some help." She nodded and walked into the kitchen. Murphy and Carver lifted up Spencer's body between them and carried him out into the street, causing another hush to fall as the townsfolk recognized their burden as a human being. Without a word, several of the men came to their aid, while a few of the women moved into the hotel to help with the clean-up.

When Spencer's body had been carefully placed beside Washburn's, Murphy headed back out the door.


"I need to go check on Reb and her mate. And I've gotta talk to Washburn's man Riggins. Have the cowboys all been rounded up?"

"Yes, Marshal," the undertaker replied. "All but one came peacefully and he's the one who got into the scuffle on the roof with that Injun and the sergeant. Woody's at your office keeping an eye on 'em. Joe and Marty went with him to help."

"Good enough then," Murphy commented. "Ya got this?"

"We got it handled, Marshal. G'wan."

Murphy nodded and walked out the door and headed back down to the saloon.

Keez and Honaw stood uneasily inside the door, backs to the wall where they could see the comings and goings of practically the entire town from their vantage point. Daniel Hawkins sat at a table near them with Jake Clemmons, Riggins, Kitty and Big Mama. Reb Stone and Donoma Chepi were nowhere in sight. Murphy raised a questioning eyebrow to Kitty.

"They're upstairs," shaking her head when he stepped that direction. "I wouldn't, Stephen."

"But...." Then he blushed beet red as he realized the implications of her words and tone. "Oh."

"Donoma needed to take care of the cut on Reb's belly. And she seemed a little shaken up by everything."

"First kill," Honaw said bluntly. "Donoma healer. Never take life - always fight with death to keep it."

"Well, in fairness, her blow might not have been the killin' shot. Several of us in this room coulda been the one to kill Washburn."

"Was Donoma... knife first to reach him, then bullets, then arrow. I saw," Keez stated with confidence.

"Kezzheekoni our best spotter," Honaw boasted proudly.

"I'm thinkin'," the Marshal agreed softly.

"They be down when they's ready an' not b'fore," Big Mama said.

"Well in the meantime, I'd like a few answers," directing his gaze at Riggins and watching the rest of them follow suit. Riggins sat up straighter and folded his hands on the table.

"I'll do the best I can, Marshal. Whaddya wanna know?"

"I wanna know what Washburn's problem was... and don't sit there and tell me it was Reb's havin' a wife or 'cause she was the reason his boys died. We both know that's a lie. And I wanna know what made you turn on him - 'cause Donoma was never a target for you, was she?"

"What makes you say that, Marshal? My gun was pointed at her head."

Murphy smirked. "If you'd been an actual threat, Big Mama and Kitty would have reacted. They wouldn't've just stood there. And given Donoma's ability to do what she did to Washburn, I'm thinkin' she coulda taken you out if she'd've needed to."

Riggins nodded. "I agree. And you're right. I told her I wasn't there for her." He shivered involuntarily. "She's a very intense young woman - looked right through me with those eyes of hers."

The entire table nodded in agreement. They'd all felt it when they met those green eyes for the first time.

"So what's the deal with Washburn, Riggins? I'm lookin' for a reason to let you and your cowboys go home, but you're gonna have to give me somethin'. Especially since you all came in here lookin' to start trouble with Stone."

"That's not true, Marshal," holding up his hands before Murphy could dispute his words. "Washburn came lookin' for trouble and I came expectin' it. But the boys were just following his orders."

Stephen Murphy scratched his chin as he contemplated Riggins' words. "All right," he concurred after a few minutes of silence. "I guess I can understand that. But the question still remains - why? What was his obsession with her based on? She never did anything intentional to draw his attention that I could ever figure out."

"It wasn't her as much as what she was."

"'Scuse me?"

"Yeah," came a voice from the top of the stairs. "I'd kinda like to hear this as well." Koko took Donoma's hand in hers and led them downstairs and to the table. Hawkins stood and grabbed two more chairs, placing them at the table and waiting for the women to be seated before he resumed his place.

"Reb Stone - you," Riggins fumbled, motioning to Koko now casually seated across from him still holding Donoma's hand, "are a woman - a successful woman in a man's world, bringing men to justice. On top of that, you are a woman who likes women."

"I am a warrior and the woman who loves Donoma Chepi."

Riggins blinked at her correction, but nodded his head in agreement. "Now you have to understand that I got this from him when he was drunk one night, so it never made a whole hell of a lot of sense to me... pardon me, Missus," he said to Donoma. Kitty and Big Mama looked their outrage at one another, but Riggins missed the byplay. "From what I could gather, the boss's wife left him when Malcolm was a baby. She left him for a woman a lot like you - strong-minded, confident, making her own way in a man's world without apology."

Riggins looked around and noticed he had a captive audience. "Mordecai Washburn was a hard man. But when the boys were little, he needed all the help he could get and he hired a female cowboy. I dunno what happened - boss never shared the details. All's I know is that when that cowgirl left, his missus left with her."

"So he was projecting?"

"Partly," Riggins nodded. "Part of it was you kept thwartin' them at ever' turn. It started with that horse - when Leroy whined to his daddy, it brought you to the boss's attention. Then you became a thorn in his side... refusing to join him and pickin' up some of his best allies as outlaws."

"They *were* outlaws."

"I know, Miz Stone, but I'm tellin' you why Mordecai Washburn became so obsessed with you. You were a reminder of ever'thin' he hated. He decided destroyin' you would give him back ever'thin' he'd lost."

"Washburn stupid man," Donoma commented curtly.

"He certainly became that, ma'am," Riggins agreed. "Thank you for trustin' me earlier."

"Good eyes - honest soul," Domona returned shortly and Riggins' eyes widened comically. He turned to Koko who grinned at him.

"It means she trusts you, Riggins. Be thankful."

He looked back at Donoma. "Thank you, ma'am." He looked at the Marshal. "Can I take my cowboys and head out?"

"I have one more question. How did Spencer fit into all this?"

"He was the boss's illegitimate son," seeing eyebrows pop up and eyes widen. Riggins held up his hands. "I dunno... I never asked and he never told."

Koko shook her head. "That explains so much... makes a lot of things fall into place. Why soldiers got used for the horse operation, why they were never caught, why no one ever suspected. What a mess."

"At least it's over now," Murphy said. He looked at Riggins. "You take your boys and go, but the next time I see you, it best be to do business and enjoy the things the town has to offer. Otherwise...."

Riggins held up his hands again. "No problem, Marshal. We don't need no more trouble. We've had enough of that today I think to last for a real long time."

Murphy nodded. "All right then. Make sure Malcolm understands that. C'mon and let's go get your cowboys. It's still early enough ya can get a good start out for home. Ya got a wagon?"

"We came prepared. We were intendin' to take his boys home regardless."

"We'll stop by the undertakers and make sure he has Washburn's body prepared for you quickly. Then we'll ride over to the fort and deliver the news about Spence and recover the Washburn boys for you to take home."

"Marshal, I'd like to go with you to the fort. I need to explain to my commanding officers why I was AWOL."

"Don't you worry none about that," Murphy assured Clemmons. "I'll make sure they know you boys were here at my request."

Clemmons swallowed hard and nodded his acceptance. Despite the hardships he sometimes faced because of his choice to join the Army, Jake Clemmons was proud of his career choice and what he'd done with his life since joining. He didn't want to lose it for doing what he still believed was the right thing. "'Preciate it, Marshal. Much obliged."

"The rest of you wait here, please. We've got unfinished business." Then without another word, Murphy, Riggins and Clemmons walked out the doors, leaving the rest to sit in startled silence? until Donoma rose and held out her hand to Koko who accepted it with alacrity.

"Guess we'll be in our room," Reb said to the others, and followed Donoma upstairs.

Chapter XLVIII

"Donoma?" Koko asked as she closed the door behind them. "Are you all right, ka'eskone?" She reached out a hand to catch Donoma's only to find herself with a body full of warm seer pressing against her length. "Donoma?" she repeated, then caught the look of wanton desire darkening the green eyes that met hers. Koko drew in a sharp breath but stood stock still, waiting to see what Donoma would do.

Donoma lifted trembling hands to Koko's face, tenderly tracing the lines and planes there. Her eyes followed the path her hands made until she reached Koko's collarbone and the open neck of her shirt. When she heard another sharp intake of air, Donoma let her eyes track back to Koko's to find them darkened to almost black in passion. She smiled impishly and moved her hands back up Koko's chest to tangle in the long hair resting at the base of her neck.

Donoma tugged gently and Koko wasted no time bending her head and taking possession of the full lips beneath hers. Without warning, Koko slid her hands down over Donoma's ass and trailed her fingers over the back of Donoma's thigh, causing Donoma to pull away slightly.

Koko glared at her in consternation.

"I cannot lift my legs properly in this dress," indicting the floor-length gingham skirt she'd worn that morning in deference to their being in town. "I do not understand how the white man expects to get any manner of enjoyment out of this clothing."

Koko snorted. "The white *man* does not have to wear it, therefore he receives plenty of enjoyment from it. It is fetching to look upon, but even more lovely once it has been removed. May I?" indicating the buttons ran up one side of Donoma's hip, holding the skirt in place.

"If you do not, I will warrior. I need to feel your skin on mine." She gave a tremulous sigh. "You could have been killed today, Koko Kanti. You could have died and left me alone to live without you."

Koko stilled her hands that were playing at Donoma's waist in an effort to remove her clothing and shifted them until she was cupping Donoma's face and staring into her eyes intently. "I could have died today," she acknowledged softly, "but so could you. Had Riggins not been an honorable man, he could have taken you from me in a heartbeat. It's a possibility we live with regardless of whether we are here or with the People or out on the prairie alone. Death is simply a part of life."

She held on when Donoma would have turned away, waiting until the green eyes came back to hers and biting her lips at the tears that sat in them. "I want you to know something, Donoma. I need for you to understand this. Even in death, I will never leave you. I will be right beside you, watching over you and loving you, waiting for you to join me so we can share eternity together. But I do not plan for that to happen for a very long time, ka'eskone. I plan to be a very old warrior before the Great Spirit calls for me to make my way to the Land of our Fathers. I have a lifetime to live with you."

"Love me, Koko Kanti. Take me to bed and show me."

Reverently, Koko removed Donoma's clothing, letting her fingers trace the muscle and bone of her strong body as it was revealed to Koko's intense gaze. When Donoma stood naked before her, Koko let her eyes wander from her toes to the top of Donoma's fair head, her frank appreciation causing Donoma to blush. Koko grinned in response before she stepped right into Donoma's personal space. "So beautiful," she murmured, brushing the backs of her fingers along Donoma's cheek before raising her chin and allowing their lips to meet.

Donoma clutched at Koko's shirt as they kissed, then pulled away with a furrowed brow.

"What is it, ka'eskone?"

"You appear to be overdressed, warrior mine. That is unacceptable to me as I wish to look upon you."

Koko smirked. "Then I suggest you take steps to rectify the situation. I am quite satisfied with the view I have." Then her jaw dropped in amazement as buttons went flying across the room before they bounced to the floor. "Donoma!" she yelped in surprise before finding her lips covered by soft fingers.

"Shh," Donoma commanded. "You suggested I rectify the situation. You do not get to complain on how I choose to do so," pushing the now useless shirt to the floor, and reaching for the belt buckle at Koko's waist. She spared a moment's thought to be thankful that Koko had removed the gunbelt earlier, then her attention was taken with pushing the heavy material of Koko's trousers down her long lean legs.

"Much better," she commented when Koko stood naked before her. She let her eyes and hands make a slow perusal up Koko's body as she stood, smiling at the trail of goosebumps left in the wake of her delicate touch. She teased Koko's nipples with her fingertips before her hands continued their journey up and around to lock behind Koko's neck.

Koko's hands on her ass again sent shivers through her body and Donoma was thrilled to be able to follow the unspoken directive. She wrapped her legs around Koko's slim waist, reveling in the intimate touch before being kissed senseless once more.

It occurred to Donoma to wonder if she was hurting Koko given the placement of her body in relation to the cut Washburn had inflicted - then Koko was gently depositing her on the bed and thinking went right out the window.


"Are you all right, Warrior? I did not hurt you, did I?"

Koko cupped Donoma's chin and raised her lips, kissing her for a long moment. "No, ka'eskone," she said with a smile when they parted. "You did not hurt me. I feel thoroughly and very well loved."

"As do I, Nutta. I wish we could stay here."

Koko sat partway up so she could see directly into Donoma's face. "Here in town?"

"No, warrior. Here in bed." She pulled Koko back down on top of her and relished the feeling of being completely wrapped in a living embrace as Koko naturally curled around her. "Being in your arms is the safest place in the world for me."

"Me too," Koko confessed. "I feel like nothing can take you away from me when you are here."

"Even in death, warrior," swearing her own vow to Koko. Koko leaned down and they sealed it with another kiss. "I could get used to this," Donoma said with a smile as they separated again.

"As could I. But you are correct - we cannot remain here. Stephen will be back soon, and I would like to finish our business here today so we can leave for home tomorrow. It is time to begin our life together."

"We did that already, warrior - I was five and you were twelve. That was our start. But I am not averse to finally being able to begin our lives together as a true couple without the past hanging over us."

"You are a troublemaker, Donoma Chepi."

"If you are just realizing this, Koko Kanti, we have far bigger problems than I thought." She moved to scramble out of the bed, but found herself being pinned to the bed by long legs and arms with the threat of tickling making her squeal.

"I have not done anything yet, ka'eskone." Koko grinned evilly and wiggled her fingers above Donoma's face.

"I am anticipating. I am not the only troublemaker in this family."

Koko snorted. "Time to take your medicine."


The sound of squealing from upstairs made Kitty and Big Mama smile and brought the rest of the girls from their rooms where they had been stationed during the street fight.

"Guess it's safe to come on out now," Ginger drawled as she and the girls meandered down the stairs.

"Yeah, I shoulda come and gotten you once Stephen left. Mama'n me've been sitting here trying to figure out what else there is to take care of."

"Probably wants to make sure Reb and Donoma are all right, though from the sound of things...."

"I just hope he gets back here soon. We're burning daylight here, and we've lost enough revenue the past couple days 'cause of Washburn."

"Sorry 'bout that, Kitty," Murphy said as he walked through the door and removed his hat. "I didn't 'spect that to take so long."

"Everything all right?"

"Yep. Riggins and his boys are on their way back to the ranch with specific instructions on their expected behavior if they ever return here again. And I think I got the Army as sorted as I could for the time being. It's like a crazy house over at the fort right now."

"What's going on?" Reb asked from the stairs. All heads turned her way and not one face cracked a smile at her appearance, though a number of eyes twinkled. She had on a completely different shirt than she'd worn before and even her clean face and neatly braided hair could not hide the satisfaction that lingered around her entire person.

"Where's Donoma?" Murphy asked, earning him glares from every woman at the table and snickers from Honaw and Keez. "What?" he whined plaintively. "I thought she might like to hear the story as well." At that moment, Donoma emerged from their room and leisurely took the steps down to stand beside Koko.

Her outfit was completely different, having opted for a light pair of trousers and a shirt very similar to Koko's. She slid her hand into Koko's. "What did I miss?"

"Nothing. Stephen was about to tell us what is going on in the fort. Apparently, things are in quite an uproar." She turned to the Marshal. "Tell us."


"I went over with Clemmons to make sure him'n his boys didn't get into no trouble for coming over here. See, he never told Spencer or anyone else about me needin' the Army to keep an eye on things. He'd overheard Spencer arguin' with Washburn and figured out somethin' weren't quite right with the two of 'em. So he decided to take it on himself to look out for the town, and got a few of his buddies that he trusted to help."


"Yeah, but it worked out," Murphy said with a shrug. "However, that wasn't the cause of the craziness. The Major wasn't too upset about me taking the men - figured Spence had cleared it for me without letting the rest of them know. I didn't see fit to correct him. The craziness is because of Spencer's death and the letter Spencer left on his desk for Clemmons to find and give to Johnson. It explained everything."


"Everything," the Marshal confirmed. "It even got me an apology from Johnson since it was clear that Spencer was working outside Army protocol on a number of things, not the least of which was that illicit horse business Washburn had running through here."

"Did he say why, Murph?"

"Sorta. He took responsibility for a number of bad decisions on himself, but said he originally got into it as a way to please the father he'd never known." Stephen sighed. "Washburn wasn't a hard man - he was a jackass. Pardon me, ladies," glancing around the table. "Seems when he was a young buck, him and Spence's mama were sweethearts. Only Washburn took advantage of her, then skipped town when he found out she was with child. Claimed the Army shipped him out - I have people looking into that, though I don't expect them to find much. Mordecai Washburn was a slippery sonova.... Ahem, 'scuse me, ladies. The man was a snake."

"So what happened, Murph? Surely Spencer knew better than to trust the man who'd run out on him and his mama."

"One would think. But apparently Washburn gave him some sob story about the Army moving him 'fore he could do the right thing, but that he'd tried to support them, even going so far as to get Spencer's commission in the Army. Spencer wanted so badly to believe him that he overlooked all the glaring holes in his story."

"How'd the horse thieving' start?" Ginger asked. "I know how some of the enlisted men got wrangled into it, but I don't understand how the Colonel got caught up in it."

"Oh, that was easy. Washburn knew the cavalry needed horses and the Army had to get them from somewhere. He just convinced Spencer that there was no harm in taking a few of the best from the herd before the Army got their pick. Not really stealing, he reasoned. Just skimmin'."

Reb shook her head. "All this because he wanted love from a father that disdained his entire existence?"

"Apparently. It seems it started out as a way for Spencer to bond with Washburn and became a way for Washburn to manipulate and control him. He stood up to him in the end though. According to Mrs. Carver, Spencer told Washburn he was on his own just before Washburn put a bullet in his belly."

"Hell of a way to finally grow up."

"Yeah, but at least things with Washburn are settled. Major Johnson's assuming command of the fort until the Army sends instructions telling him otherwise. Clemmons said Spencer wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Army so something should be coming down on that eventually."

"You think it was a confession?"

"Probably. It sounds like he planned to die today one way or another."

After a moment's silent contemplation on that statement, Kitty slapped her hands on the table, startling everyone. She ignored the glares she was getting, asking instead, "Now what?"

"I dunno," Murphy shrugged. "Reb?"

"I think Donoma Chepi and I are gonna head towards the summer camp of the People. We have a joining to celebrate and I for one am not gonna be the one to deny Litonya her opportunity to have a party." Chuckles went around the table, including loud guffaws from Honaw and Keezheekoni. "What?" she asked innocently. "I like livin'... especially now that Donoma is my wife."

"Koko smart warrior. Know not to anger wife's mother." Laughter followed Keez's pronouncement.

"How 'bout after that, Reb? Will you be comin' back here?"

Koko and Donoma looked at one another for a long moment before turning back to Kitty. "I don't think so, Kitty... at least not for a long time. Donoma and I want the chance to just go out there and live a little without worrying about who's chasin' us or what outlaw needs catchin' or who's got it in for me today. We've waited a long time for it to be just us."

"We'll miss ya, you know."

"I know. We'll miss all of you too, but we're looking forward to it too, ya know?"

"I know," Kitty agreed with a smile. "I remember being young once."

"Once? You still young," Donoma stated firmly. Kitty cupped her cheek gently.

"You're a sweet kid, Donoma. You look after her, Reb," waiting for the nod of agreement she knew was coming. Then she looked around at the assembled crowd. "I think we should make a party for Reb and Donoma tonight. Invite everyone, including your wife, Daniel. Time she comes down to live with the rest of us here."

"I don't know, Kitty, but I'll ask."

Kitty snorted. "Step up and be the man in your family for a change, Daniel."

"Not fair, Kit."

"Life's generally not," Kitty scoffed. "Otherwise, I wouldn't be a whore and a madam while my brother ran the local church." Dead silence met her words and everyone looked at first at Kitty, then Daniel, then back to Kitty again. "Oh for cryin' out loud - are we having a party tonight or what?"

"I bes' getta cookin'," Big Mama said as she pushed up out of her seat. "We be needin' plenny o' food for dis here party."

"I'll have Mary go around and get the rest of the women to volunteer some vittles as well," Daniel stated, looking defiantly at Kitty. "If we're going to give Reb and Donoma Stone a send-off, we're going to do it up right. They deserve that much."

"Well, then... I guess we're havin' a party. I'll go let the fellas know. If they know, their wives'll be more likely to pitch in. 'Cause no one wants to be seen as the one who put a damper on a good time, no matter the reason for it," Murphy said knowingly.

"Keez and I will take the warriors - we will go back to the cabin and wait for your return," Honaw said to Koko in their native tongue. "We have no desire to be caught here when the white man drinks his firewater and looks for an outlet for his anger."

"Go ahead," Koko agreed. "We will return sometime tomorrow. It will take us a few days to pack up our belongings, so if you wish to return to the People, go ahead and do so. Donoma and I will not be far behind you."

"We will wait and escort you. Neho'e would expect it and the warriors will accept nothing less." She nodded and turned away, only to be stopped by his hand on her arm. "What happens to Hassun, Koko Kanti?"

"That is his choice, Honaw. He did nothing wrong, so he will be able to return to the Army as a scout if he wishes. Otherwise, he is welcome to return to the People with us."

"He wants to stay with the Army. I just wanted to be certain he would not suffer for his actions in helping us find you. He is a good friend."

"I have found him to be such as well. He will be fine, Honaw."

"Good," Honaw replied, reassured. He turned and with a nod of his head collected Keezheekoni. Then the two of them made their way silently out of the saloon and towards the barn where the remainder of the warriors waited. They were ready to be out of the white man's town and back onto the open prairie.

"Are you all right, Kit?" Daniel asked solicitously before he walked out the door. Despite everything, he'd never been able to maintain his anger at her for very long. She sighed and wrapped her arms around herself.

"I'm fine Daniel. I didn't mean to reveal everything like that." Daniel snorted.

"You didn't reveal everything, and I'm not ashamed of the fact that you're my sister. The rest...?" He shrugged his shoulders. "We'll worry about it as things come up." He pushed open the door and turned to her. "If you plan on this party being a blowout, you should probably get busy. It'll be nightfall before you know it. Don't worry," he added. "The womenfolk'll be here with their company manners on." Then he turned and left.

Kitty motioned to her girls. Daniel was right about one thing - there was a lot of work to be done if they were going to do this party up right. A few words, and they set to work, determined to make the night memorable.

Chapter XLIX

"Do you think the soldiers will be all right... the ones that were part of Washburn's horse outfit, I mean?" Donoma asked as they made their way from the cabin in the early morning light. "I did not see any of the Army at the town gathering. Do the Army and the townspeople not celebrate together? Surely they all owed you a debt of gratitude for what you have done for them," Donoma stated with a bit of irritation in her voice. Not that she was enamored of the Blue Coats, especially after what they had all just been through because of one Blue Coat in particular; it was simply the principle of the thing.

"I think the Army is still busy trying to straighten out the mess Spencer left. Stephen said the Army would not be pressing formal charges against them, but he expected the major to institute some form of punishment upon those involved. What they did was wrong, so there needs to be some action taken, but since they were all following Spencer's orders, they do not want to ruin their careers as soldiers."

"Hassun believes they will be shoveling horse droppings for some time to come," Honaw informed them. "I spoke with him while you were in town. He told me he hopes to visit the People more often. He felt welcome among us and I believe that is something he has missed."

"That would be a fitting punishment for those soldiers who were involved with Washburn," Koko agreed. "And Hassun would be welcome among the People."

"That is what I told him," Honaw assured them before moving off to join the warriors in a sweep of the area in an effort to give Donoma and Koko a measure of privacy. Traveling with them as a joined couple was very different from traveling with a sister, a seer or a brother warrior.

"That was an interesting party," Donoma commented when they were alone again. "So much like our celebrations and yet so different as well. What was the instrument Stephen made music with?"

"A fiddle."

"I liked it. It had a nice sound. And he had a good singing voice, though not nearly as nice as yours. Why did you not sing last night, Koko Kanti? I have missed hearing you sing."

"That is not something I am comfortable sharing with the world, Donoma... especially the white man's world. There is too much expectation there." At Donoma's confused look, Koko sighed and continued. "When I sang with the People, it was because I felt like it. I had something to express - happiness, sadness, loneliness, regret. Always there was a reason for my singing, and it was always my reason... not because anyone else in the world expected me to."

"You sang for me," Donoma objected.

"I sang for you because it made you happy - and that made me happy. Even when you asked it of me, you never expected me to say yes; you were just glad when I did so."

"I always thought your singing made the stars twinkle a little brighter, like the Great Spirit was smiling down upon us," smiling when she saw the light blush trail up dark skin. "I was glad to see Daniel's wife came," Donoma said, changing the subject. "I think it made Kitty happy."

"I believe so as well. Maybe it will be a new start for them as a family."

"Do you think Kitty will give up the saloon and move into the cabin? I think short of marrying, that might be the only way Mary would accept her."

Koko shrugged. "I do not know, ka'eskone. She should not have to. That has been her life for a very long time, and is very much a part of who she is; but at least she has a choice now. Perhaps if she and Stephen decide to settle down...." letting her thoughts trail off and Donoma remained quiet. Finally Koko shook her head. "I do not know," she repeated. "I think it depends on what Kitty wants to do with her life now. Those girls are her family too. I am not certain she will just give it up, even with the opportunity to do so. It is all she has known for the better part of her life."

Silence fell between them then, though it was not at all uncomfortable. Their thoughts were mostly centered on the fun they'd had with the townspeople at Kitty's going away party and the celebration they would soon share with the People in honor of their marriage.

"I hope Nahko'e does not overdo," Donoma announced suddenly into the quiet. The warriors who had moved closer once the conversation earlier had ceased, had snickered. Koko glared at them and the sound stopped immediately, causing Donoma to smile in Koko's direction. Koko rolled expressive blue eyes.

"Ka'eskone," she said with patient amusement. "She is your Nahko'e and you have lived with her for how many cycles? You know very well she is going to overdo. This party is to celebrate the joining of her only nahtona to the one who has loved her since time itself began. It could go on for days."

Koko's words made Donoma's breath catch in her chest and she simply stared at Koko for a long moment.

"Donoma?" Koko called softly. "Ka'eskone, are you all right?"

"That was beautiful, Nutta," Donoma replied in an equally quiet tone. Koko blinked before realizing exactly what Donoma was referring to.

"And it is the truth, beloved. Do not ever think any differently."

"I am simply unused to you stating it so plainly, warrior."

"I will endeavor to correct that oversight in the future, ka'eskone."

Donoma smiled and blushed. "I will do the same, Koko Kanti. You should always know how I feel."

Koko smiled. "Oh I do, Donoma. You show me in every look... every word... every touch... even when you were still furious with me, I could feel it." Donoma's blush was so fierce, Koko was afraid the blood might actually burst from her skin and she found the reaction endearing. She grinned at Donoma rakishly and waggled her eyebrows.

"Do not tease me warrior - I have many ways of making you pay." Koko cocked a brow in mute question. "For one thing, you can sleep under the stars with the warriors instead of sharing the dwelling with me," indicating the single tepee they'd decided to bring along. Koko's eyes grew comically wide and her lower lip started to tremble just the slightest bit.

"You would not be so cruel."

"Are you certain?"

Koko held her gaze a long moment. "Yes," she finally replied. "You would be no happier with that arrangement than I would."

"Perhaps." Her eyes were steady but Koko heard the smile in her voice and slumped in reaction. "So," Donoma added with an outward smile, clearing her throat. "Several days, hmm?"

"I think so," Koko answered, picking up the thread of conversation left nearly forgotten in the ensuing teasing. "If we are lucky, Litonya will allow only a short celebration with the People so we can make it to the summer camp to have a much longer party with the rest of the tribes."

"How would that make us lucky, Koko? That just means twice the opportunities for jokes and tricks to be played on us and challenges to be issued to you."

"Maybe, but we can sneak away from summer camp much easier than we can the People's encampment. There are many more bodies and joinings at summer camp. There we are one among many instead of one among a few. Besides... who will challenge me? We are already wed to one another - there were witnesses and everything."

Donoma smiled. "Yes, there were. But I look forward to seeing you wear your buckskins again."

"I look forward to wearing them. They are a testament of the love we shared even before we confessed it."

"Yes," Donoma agreed fervently. "They certainly are."

They fell silent for a bit after that, their need for conversation diminished in one another's presence. So they continued their trek west, guarded by the warriors who traveled with them yet remained separate, allowing them whatever modicum of privacy they could provide.


"We should prepare ourselves," Takoda mentioned to Odahingum one evening as they sat around the campfire together. "The warriors will be rejoining us soon."

"Are Koko and Donoma with them?"

"I have not seen, but I do not believe the warriors would return without them if they were successful in their mission. However, I have not seen that either. All I am certain of is that the warriors will soon return to us. It is my hope that they were successful; I do not believe Donoma Chepi or Koko Kanti would survive another separation. And it would break Litonya's heart."

"I believe you are correct, my friend. Can you see how far from us the warriors are?"

"Not accurately, though I do am convinced they will reach us before we reach summer camp."

"Soon then."

"Very soon."


"Koko Kanti?" Koko looked up from her place in front of the dwelling she and Donoma shared, meeting Honaw's eyes over the small fire that separated them. She tilted her head and cocked and eyebrow, waiting for him to speak. He looked at Donoma and then back at Koko.

"No secrets, Honaw," Koko assured him. "She will know whether you tell her now or I do later. You should know this. Now speak your mind."

Honaw cleared his throat. "I am sorry, Donoma. I was speaking to Koko as one warrior to another; I did not mean to imply that Koko should keep secrets from you. I forgot that your relationship as Koko Kanti's warrior advisor puts you in a different position than simply being her spouse does."

"I forgive you, Hestatanemo. You have always had a tendency to try to protect me when you thought you could get away with it," Donoma smirked. "Not that I always let you."

Honaw sighed dramatically. "That is the truth." He glanced at Koko who was openly smirking at him. "Not one word, Koko Kanti." He grinned. "Now she is your responsibility."

"At least I can keep up," chuckling when the smile fell from his face.

"I hate you," he grumbled, but the twinkling in his eyes belied his words. "Listen, I wanted to let you know that the warriors and I have decided to ride on ahead tomorrow. I believe we are less than two days from where we should find the People and we would like to give them a bit of time to prepare for your arrival." He sighed. "Nahko'e will never forgive me if I do not give her at least a little warning so that she can be ready."

Donoma chuckled. "That is probably the truth. Go ahead, Honaw. We will be fine alone."

"Donoma speaks the truth, my friend. We will be fine. We are far enough from the white man's world that they should pose no threat and all the People should be headed away from us. Besides, when we leave the People, we will not have the warriors to look out for us. That is something the People need to accept - it is best that they do so at the beginning of our journey together."

Honaw nodded. "Very well. We will leave at daylight in the morning. If you remain here for an extra day, that should give us time to reach them ahead of you."

"We will follow behind you, Honaw... two or three days. Just make sure the People keep moving towards the summer encampment. We do not want to be late arriving there. But we will make it to the clan before the tribe gets to the encampment," Koko assured him. "I told you we would not deny Litonya the opportunity to host the celebration of our joining."

Honaw nodded. "We will leave in the morning then." He moved away from the fire and back to the small area the warriors had staked out for themselves. Donoma and Koko exchanged glances, then Donoma leaned her body into Koko's, gratified to feel the strong arm wrap around her waist and pull her closer.

"I have a confession," Donoma said so softly, Koko almost missed the words. She tilted her ear in the direction of Donoma's lips. "I am glad they are going ahead; I would like a little time alone with you to prepare for the melee that is soon to come."

"Me too," Koko admitted. "Come," she said, standing and tugging Donoma up beside her. "Let us rest tonight so we can send the warriors off tomorrow. Then we will see if we can find something to occupy us until we are ready to leave."

Donoma didn't speak - she had no need to. The expression on her face was statement enough.


Litonya went out to meet the warriors as soon as the word went up from the lookouts that they were approaching. She looked directly at Honaw as he rode forward and climbed down from his horse to meet her. The rest waited a few paces back.

"Well?" looking around for Koko and Donoma.

"They are behind us - two or three days. We wanted to give the People a chance to prepare for their return."

"Things worked out well, then?"

"Things worked out well. But they will tell you the story when they arrive - it is their story to tell."

"Fair enough. In the meantime, we have many preparations to make. We will wait here...."

"No. Koko insisted we continue to move towards the summer encampment. They will catch us, Nahko'e. Koko promised, as did Donoma. They have no desire to thwart your celebration. And since there are only two of them instead of an entire clan, it will make little difference in the distance they need to make up to reach us."

"All right," Litonya agreed. "Let us go talk to your Neho'e and Odahingum. We have a lot of work to do."


"Are you ready, ka'eskone?" Koko asked as they approached the People's encampment. Donoma blew out a breath and met Koko's blue eyes. They'd had three wonderful days of just them and were just arriving at the tribe as the sun reached its zenith. The call from the scouts had already gone up and they could both see the entire clan gathering to welcome them home.

"They are our friends and family, Koko. I do not think we can ever be ready for that," Donoma replied wryly.

Koko laughed, only her eyes betraying her nervousness. "I tend to agree with you, Donoma. Come, the sooner we get the greetings out of the way, the sooner we can get started celebrating." Then they were arriving in the midst of the People.

Koko slid from the back of the big black, holding his reins and grasping Dapples' in the same hand before extending her arms to Donoma. Donoma slipped from Dapples' back and into Koko's arms and together they turned to face the People who were waiting to greet them.

Litonya was the first and she took them both in her arms, murmuring words of welcome and congratulation. Litonya stepped back only to find herself lifted off the ground and into Koko's arms. "Koko Kanti!" she squealed. "Koko Kanti... put me down this instant!" Koko obeyed with a chuckle, laughing even harder when Litonya backhanded her in the belly. She looked at her daughter. "You have your hands full with this one, Donoma Chepi."

"Yes, Nahko'e," Donoma agreed, wrapping her arms around Koko's waist and feeling Koko's arm come around her shoulders, completing their embrace. "And I would not have it any other way. She completes me."

"You are happy, my nahtona?"

"So much, Nahko'e." She looked at Koko and time stood still for the long moment they held each other's eyes. The entire tribe watched in fascination - the public acknowledgment of a bond they had shared since they were children. "We both are," Donoma assured Litonya without ever allowing her eyes to stray from Koko's.

"Have you exchanged promises with one another in accordance with our traditions?" Odahingum asked formally as he came forward, knowing the answer but needing for them to acknowledge it publicly before the People.

"We have, Chief Odahingum."

"And were there witnesses to this joining?"

"There were," Koko replied. "Honaw and Keezheekoni bore witness of our exchange." The two men in question stepped forward and nodded their assent of her words. Odahingum bowed slightly in acceptance of their agreement and turned back to face Koko and Donoma. He smiled and found the expression reflected back to him two-fold. "Then the People extend a welcome to the new family of Donoma Chepi and Koko Kanti. It is wonderful to have you home again!"

A cheer went up from the entire tribe and then they were being escorted into the village area.


The celebration had been going on for some time and the sun was just setting when Koko and Donoma were finally able to sit down with Litonya, Takoda and Odahingum. The People settled round them, waiting to hear the tale of what had happened since Donoma and Koko had left them months before.

Slowly Donoma told their story, drawing gasps and groans as she went through the adventures they had shared during their time away. When she reached the showdown with Washburn, Koko held her tighter and absolute silence fell over the entire encampment. Finally....

"So the threat to you has been eliminated, Koko Kanti?" Takoda asked, breaking the silence.

"The most obvious one, yes. There could be others, but Washburn was the worst. The rest we will deal with if and when they arise."

"Are you certain about going off alone?" Odahingum asked. "The People's warriors would be glad to stand with you if...."

"No, Chief. We need some time for us. There is so much we need to relearn about each other, discoveries we have missed by being apart from one another for so long. We are not saying we will never return to live among the People, only that we are not staying right now."

"Let them be, Odahingum," Litonya spoke up, surprising them all. "They are entitled to a bit of time alone considering what they have been through to be together again." She turned to the two still clasping one another in a singular embrace. "You will come with us to the summer camp and make an effort to meet up with us there every year until you return to settle with the People?"

"Yes, Nahko'e," Koko and Donoma said together.

"Good, then let us celebrate - this is a party!" With a whoop and a cry from the warriors, the party resumed, going on well into the night.

Chapter L

The trip across the prairie was slow and steady as the People made their way towards summer camp. Koko resumed her classes with the warriors at their request, spending her mornings sharpening skills that had been left to fallow when she lived among the white man. Donoma's mornings were used to prepare the things they would need for their journey alone as well as contributing to the daily welfare of the tribe. Many of the women she shared chores with were intrigued to hear about her experiences in the white man's world and she was glad to share her stories with them.

Afternoons they spent alone together, much as they had during their growing up years. After a few days of this, Litonya turned to Takoda as Koko and Donoma walked out of the encampment. "It is good to have them here again... even if it is only for a little while. They bring balance with them."

"Are you certain it is wise to allow them to leave us again, Litonya? Surely you have seen the difference having them here makes for the clan."

Litonya gazed at Takoda with a hint of loving exasperation in her look. "Takoda, you have been a shaman for the People since before your Neho'e passed on to the land of the Great Spirit. I know the well-being of the clan is your first priority, but you need to stop being the tribe's seer and be Donoma's Neho'e instead. Look at this from Donoma's point of view. Her joining with Koko is nothing like anything the People have seen. They have been a couple for their lifetimes and yet they are just discovering the bond they share. You cannot blame them for wanting some peace to make that discovery."

"None of the rest of us had that luxury, Litonya."

"None of the rest of us have their history nor have we known separation like they have, Takoda."

"You are not going to give this up, are you?"

"No. They deserve this together. They will return... one day."

Takoda smiled. "Are you a seer now?"

"Better... I am a Nahko'e."

"I surrender, Litonya."

"I knew I had joined with a smart man," Litonya said with a giggle. Takoda just laughed and wrapped an arm around her shoulders and together they watched the sun set. It was how Koko and Donoma found them a short time later.

Evenings were spent in conversation and games. There were a few challenges, but more because the warriors felt Koko and Donoma deserved the courtesy than because they wanted to break up their coupling. Not that there was any danger of that - Koko was able to take on all comers... and did so on a regular basis, much to the entertainment of the rest of the tribe.

Nights were about the two of them - Donoma tended to the minor cuts and bruises Koko had accumulated during her day while they shared experiences of their time spent apart. Some nights they spent making love and others they merely curled around one another in sleep.

So they slowly made their way across the prairie towards the summer encampment.


Their arrival in the summer camp was a heralded event and a feeling of excitement pervaded the People. Word had spread of Koko's return to her clan and her joining to Donoma. So everyone was out to greet them when they finally reached the summer encampment.

It was odd - hundreds of People observing as they entered the outskirts of the village, but not a sound could be heard beyond the whisper the horses made. The scouts keeping watch had alerted the camp of their approach, and the People gathered together to welcome them.

Odahingum came first, followed by Takoda. Then came Donoma and Koko riding side by side in their joining attire. The respected elders followed behind them; the warriors were next, riding in pairs or threesomes and looking around carefully at the assembly. Bringing up the rear were the women and children.

When the clan reached the main village of the summer encampment, the ranks of the rest of the People closed around them from behind. The elders moved to take their places with the others and the People spread out respectfully to watch the greeting between Odahingum and the rest of the chieftains.

"Greetings, my friends."

"Welcome, Chief Odahingum and the People of his clan. We understand you come bearing great news."

"I do indeed. Koko Kanti has returned to us, and she and Donoma Chepi have joined their lives and formed a new family."

"Were there witnesses to this joining?" Honaw and Keez stepped forward and awaited the chieftains' acknowledgment before moving back to their places with the warriors. "Then we welcome the new family of Koko Kanti and Donoma Chepi to the People and look forward to blessing them on the day of the long sun."

With that pronouncement, a cheer went up from the congregation and the tribe moved to set up their dwellings before mingling with the friends they saw for only a short time once a year.


Koko deliberately chose a quiet spot a little separated from the rest for erecting their temporary home. With Donoma's help, it was up quickly and Koko led Donoma inside. Once they were alone, Donoma leaned her head against Koko's chest; Koko wrapped her arms around Donoma and kissed the top of her head.


"I do not like being the center of attention, Koko Kanti. It is very unnerving."

Koko chuckled soundlessly. "You should be used to it, Donoma. You have always drawn attention to yourself, simply by being who you are."

"Not like this, Koko Kanti. Before I was looked to for my gift as a seer and when that was not needed, I could become part of the whole... unnoticed by the rest."

"None here tried to capture your attention, ka'eskone?"

"Only once...." Koko raised her eyebrows in question. "Warriors do not handle public humiliation well." Koko didn't need to speak - Donoma could see the thoughts running through her blue eyes. "It was the first year we came to summer camp after you left. Innan thought it was an open invitation. He did not know that you had taught me to defend myself. When I refused his attention, he went to Neho'e to force the issue."

"What happened?" Koko asked, unable to resist the twinkle sparkling out of the green eyes.

"He challenged - I answered. I did not defeat him, but he did not defeat me either. I was left alone after that."

"I am sorry, Donoma," after a moment's silence. "I should have been here."

"We cannot change what happened, Koko Kanti. At least I was able to hold my own, thanks to you."

"I wish I could have seen that," Koko said wistfully.

Donoma chuckled. "I do not think Innan would be willing to give another demonstration. The warriors no longer tease him, but it took a very long time for him to live down."

"I'll bet," Koko murmured. "Come, let us change from our wedding attire into more comfortable clothing. Then we can go out and mix and mingle with the rest of the People. Maybe we will run into Innan," Koko added waggling her eyebrows.

Donoma laughed. "I do not think he would allow himself to be caught like that, warrior. Besides, he has his hands full with the wives and children he has now."

"Take all my fun," Koko grumbled, loosening the ties to remove her shirt. Then she caught her breath when Donoma's hand started to wander across the warm skin of her back, gently raising the shirt with each passing touch.

"All your fun, warrior?" bringing her lips into play as she exposed more skin.

It was a while before they made it out among the People again.


The next few days were spent renewing old friendships and making new ones. Innan did manage to avoid them, much to Koko's amusement. But it was nice to reacquaint themselves with those that had always counted them as friends. Finally, however, all the tribes of the People were gathered and as summer solstice dawned, they prepared to celebrate the births and marriages of the previous cycle. The elders blessed the babies first, then it came time for those who had been joined.

The eldest elder stood - a man whose cycles numbered beyond counting - and beckoned Koko and Donoma forward first. "The rest have requested that you be blessed first and separately. I believe you make them nervous."

The assembly tittered and Koko and Donoma stepped forward and took their place in front of the elders.

"For a very long time, we have watched the bond you share grow and develop into something beyond what most witness and even fewer share. There were many among us that had given up seeing a successful resolution between you - I cannot tell you how it gladdens all of us to be proven wrong about it."

"Me too," Koko muttered, drawing grins from every elder within hearing.

"I will keep this brief," the elder promised. "The sooner we finish the blessings, the sooner we start the celebration," drawing cheers and whistles from everyone. "So...." he started, clearing his throat before he continued. "The strength of your mothers, the wisdom of your fathers, the warmth of your clan to surround and comfort you. Find your hearts in one another - keep them safe and love one another well until you make your way into the arms of the Great Spirit."

The remainder of the elders echoed his sentiments and Koko and Donoma accepted the cheers and congratulations of the tribe with a blush before they were allowed to move on while the rest moved forward to be blessed. Then the celebration began.


"How do you feel, nahtona?" Takoda asked, sitting down beside Donoma much later that evening. Koko had been called away to congratulate those that had been initiated into the ranks of the Peoples' warriors at sundown though their eyes never left one another despite the current physical distance between them. "Now that your joining to Koko Kanti has been recognized and blessed by the elders of the People."

"It does not change how I feel, Neho'e. Why would it?"

Takoda blinked in surprise. "You do not feel differently now that you have been blessed... like your marriage to Koko has merit or validation now?"

Donoma turned to Takoda then, outrage flowing from her very green eyes. "My mating with Koko Kanti needs no merit or validation from anyone. What we share is between us and us alone. We allowed the elders to bless us because it is the way of our People and we respect that. They would have been disappointed had we not asked for their blessing. But it does not change the way we feel."

"Problem, ka'eskone?" Koko purred as she wrapped Donoma in her arms from behind.

"No, Nutta. Simply a misunderstanding," holding Takoda's eyes. Unexpectedly, he smiled at them and took them into his arms briefly before releasing them.

"No misunderstanding, Donoma Chepi. You responded exactly as I hoped you would - you both did. Thank you for proving me right," he said again. Then he brushed a hand over each woman's cheek and returned to his place around the fire with the other shamen. Koko and Donoma watched wordlessly as he spoke, seeing the vehemence in his gestures and watching all eyes turn to them for a moment before the rest grumblingly relinquished some sort of payment to him.

Without a word they exchanged gazes, glancing at the shamen once more before Koko released Donoma from her embrace and extended a hand. Donoma accepted the invitation and together they walked away from the celebration and into the quiet peace of the prairie summer night.

"Do I even want to know?"

"Probably not. I know I do not."

They walked further out into the prairie, until the camp was nothing more than a speck of light behind them and the only sounds they heard were those of the crickets, the herds and the grasses blowing in the breeze. Finally Koko pulled them to a stop and wrapped Donoma in her embrace, gratified when Donoma immediately turned in her arms to face her.

"Do you suppose my Neho'e and Nahko'e are watching? Do you think they know how happy I am?"

"I think they do, Nutta," Donoma replied confidently. "I believe the Great Spirit shares our joy with them."

"I wonder if we will ever see them again... in this world, I mean."

"Perhaps one day... if we are in need of their help or guidance like we were before. In the meantime, I like to think they know we are finally happy together and that they are happy for us." They both looked up at the two stars that represented Honiahaka and Rae'l to them for a few minutes. Then Koko cleared her throat before speaking softly to keep from disturbing the peace around them.

"Well, Mrs. Donoma Chepi Reb Stone," seeing the arched eyebrow and chuckling in response to the address. "We have been lost to and found each other again; have been joined to one another; have made friends in the white man's world; have defeated the enemy that would have seen us destroyed; have returned to the bosom of our People; and have received the blessing of both chieftain and elders. What do you want to do now?"

"Tonight, I want to return to our dwelling and show you just how much I love you. Is that not part of our responsibility as a newly blessed couple?" she added with wicked grin, allowing the merriment to peek out of her eyes.

Koko's grin matched her own and her eyes danced with happiness. "I believe it is, ka'eskone. We cannot ignore this tradition. It could bring us bad luck and we would not want to start out our blessed lives inviting bad luck upon us in such a manner." She ducked her head and kissed Donoma with passionate intent. "And after that - when we are certain we have fulfilled our obligations?" she asked breathlessly when they separated.

"After that, when we are completely sated by one another, I want to curl up in your arms and sleep peacefully until the sun comes up. And once daylight has returned to the land, I would like to take our leave of the People and go make our own way... wherever we feel led to go."

"You sound like a woman with a plan, ka'eskone."

"I am a woman with a life to lead, and I cannot wait to lead it with you, warrior mine."

"Come then. Let us return to the camp so we may begin the ritual honoring the tradition of celebrating becoming a blessed couple. Then tomorrow we will see what lies over the next hill... and the next... until we decide differently."

"I love you Koko Kanti... so much."

"You are my world, Donoma Chepi. I love you too."


Their leave taking the following morning was a boisterous affair as every member of every clan seemed to desire to offer well-wishes and farewells. Finally though, everyone was done except for their closest family. Odahingum was the first of the last to speak to them.

"Be well," he offered. "And come home safely."

Honaw stepped forward next. "Thank you for allowing me to be part of your journey thus far. It was a privilege to have been witness to so much. Now do not go off and forget about the family here that loves and cares for you. I will be waiting for your return - I want to hear the stories of the sights you find and the places you go and the things you do."

Donoma returned the hug he gave her fiercely. "I will write it all down for you, Hestatanemo, so I will not forget anything in the telling. Watch out for yourself and for our Neho'e and Nahkon'e."

"I will and you and Koko Kanti look out for each other."

Takoda walked to them next, taking them both in his arms and murmuring a low prayer for them. Then he kissed each of them and stepped back to allow Litonya to have the final good bye.

"We will miss you while you are gone from us, but I understand the necessity of doing so. I hope you find what you are searching for soon that you may return to us all the sooner. But if you do not, know that we will not forget and there will always be a place for you both at our fire."

"Thank you, Nahkon'e," Donoma said, hugging her mother tightly, then standing back so Koko could do the same.

"I will protect her, Litonya. And I will bring her home to stay when we are ready to settle with the People."

"And you will return here to summer camp every year until you do?"

"We will make every effort, Litonya. I promise you." Litonya held Koko's serious blue eyes for a long moment, then nodded.

"Very well. Go with my blessing."

The two mounted their horses and looked around at the expectant crowd. Then without a word, they reached out their hands and linked them, turning their horses west and setting off without a backwards glance.

Litonya chanced a look at Takoda and noted the mysterious hint of a smile on his face. She tilted her head in curiosity. "You know something," she said flatly.

"I know that they have each other. That will make the rest all right." They watched until Koko and Donoma were mere specks in the distance before they returned to the encampment, ready to pack up their own things and prepare for the trip across the Plains - back towards their winter home.


There was something to be said for solitude on the vast prairie and the peace they found together there was something Donoma and Koko appreciated on a number of levels. At the moment, they were appreciating the fact in the most intimate of ways.

Honiahaka and Rae'l had turned away at the first sign of lovemaking between their daughters - not to preserve their modesty as much as to give Koko and Donoma the privacy and respect they deserved.

"It is good to see them happy together, is it not?" Honiahaka asked his wife with a smile.

"It is indeed," Rae'l agreed. "It was quite the road to get here though."

"Yes, but it is not the destination that counts, but the journey we take to reach it. Koko and Donoma have made a wonderful start to a memorable journey."

"I hope it is long and filled with happiness."

"I think it will be," Honiahaka said. The pair smiled down upon their children as Koko's and Donoma's mingled laughter rang out across the prairie. He and Rae'l moved further away, knowing for right now, everything was right in their world.

The Drifter had come home and found her place at last.


09/07 - 06/08

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