Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road

Tori hadn't overstayed her welcome with the family from Elsewhere. She had sensed that she might not be completely unwelcome, but this was a family who needed healing. She'd wanted to give them as much time to do that as possible.

As she walked back to her car, she could just barely sense a kind of tang to the air that she was beginning to associate with the Elder's... No, she had to remember that no matter the similarities Andi and Elder Yazzie possessed, Andi was different in so many other ways. Anyway, the tang... she'd come to associate that with Andi's son, the Beastmaster. Tori was exceptionally good at keeping the wildness at bay, but she suspected Paul would be far more fascinating if she let the wildness rise to the surface.

She shrugged to herself. There had been one or two others with gifts like that, although not of the strength Paul seemed to have. No, the only one who'd been as powerful — perhaps even more so — had been her Mate. Oh, how he had called to her very soul! If she thought only of the years before the massacre, she could smile. When the cousin kin took Mates that were not long-lived, they expected to outlive their Mates... and usually their children, too. Yes, it was sad. But it was the way of things.

Murder, on the other hand... no, that was unnatural. Tori had only realized her pain had eased enough to find others attractive about a hundred years ago. But casual relationships were still all she was willing to accept. Someday, that would change... but not yet.

Jimmy was pacing back and forth, clearly angry and barely holding the wildness in, along the edge of Elder Yazzie's yard. One of the bats had pinged her as she neared her car, obviously curious about what was causing ripples in the air and, more importantly, Jimmy's attention to shift. But almost at the moment the bat located her, she sensed it being gently tugged away.

Andi's son was good. His touch was light and barely perceptible even to someone like her... someone who knew exactly what to look for.

"I thought we were leaving," Jimmy growled as she reached her car and opened the rear hatch.

She looked at him and smirked slightly. She couldn't help it. Maybe he was just too young yet, but his impatience was not helping him. At all.

"Yep," she said, crawling into the cargo area. "Come daybreak, we'll be on our way." Then she closed the door, locked it, and curled up under the blanket she kept here for this very reason. She drifted off to sleep to the sounds of his growls, some banging on the side of the car, but also the touch of Hawk's feathers against her face.

Why do you believe it's so important for me to accompany them, my friend?

They lack parts of themselves that cannot be found in this world. You cannot heal this wound, but you can lend your strength to them and help soothe their spirits.

Mmmm. Okay, she said sleepily. I like them. Of course, I'll help them.

She woke when she felt the sun begin to rise; instantly awake and checking her surroundings, she was perfectly still. Only Hawk knew she was awake.

Good morning, Princess.

Tori smiled and opened her eyes. Are you ever going to stop calling me that? The cousin kin are all one people, not one any higher or lower than another.

Hawk clicked its beak in a laugh. And yet there was a time when that was not true. I remember that time, even if you do not. The Spirit tilted its head to the side. No, I probably will not ever stop calling you that. It makes you smile. And it is truth that you and your sister are the only descendants of those who were once royalty of your people.

She sat up and finger combed her hair as she looked out the window into the pre-dawn morning. Ah, that was one of the many things she'd learned on her Walkabout. It had been in New York City, she was certain of that. She was fairly certain it had been in the 1920s, although it might have been a little earlier or later. There had been an old Jewish man who lived in the apartment above her. He was so devout, so sincere, that she couldn't help but be interested in the stories of his people. He had insisted that the most important of the stories couldn't be taught to a woman, but she had merely shrugged and said, "Tell me the stories you tell the children." And he had.

Because his people counted a day from sunset to sunset, it was important to know when the sun actually set. When you cannot tell the difference between a black thread and a red one, then you know the sun has set. In the same way, once you can see the difference between the black thread and the red one, you know the sun has risen.

She hadn't bothered to tell him she could tell the difference by a sliver of moonlight. Tori remembered his story, though, and the look of the light when he deemed it to be daytime. In later years, scientists would enumerate the different types of sunrise, but she still used old Rabbi Glass' method. His family had been surprised when she asked if she might participate in their rituals when he died. His daughters had been hesitant, his son was suspicious. She had only been able to say, when pressed as to why she would want to do so, that he had been kind to her when she was a stranger in a strange land. And that he reminded her of the grandfathers of her people, the storytellers, the ones who remembered how to be the People. They had just nodded at that; the daughters taught her the proper rituals of their people.

Tori unlocked and opened the back hatch of the SUV and climbed out into the cold morning air to stretch... to greet the Earth and the Sky. Jimmy was huddled against the side of Elder Yazzie's house. Tori had barely finished closing the car up again when Elder Yazzie came out of her house wearing her simple loose pants and a long tunic. She was barefoot, of course, something that even Tori didn't much care for this time of year.

"Good morning, Elder Yazzie," she said with a bright smile.

"Good morning, Tori," Andrea said, returning the smile. "Are you ever going to stop calling me that? It's only been twenty years since you came to Ganado and I asked you to call me Andrea."

Recalling her conversation with Hawk only moments ago, Tori laugh. "Probably not. It makes you smile."

"I suppose it does, at that," Andrea said. "Ryan's making breakfast and the coffee is nearly ready. Grab your thermos and get yourself fueled." She settled into her beginning Taijiquan stance, eyes closed. "Mind the cousins on the floor," she said. "They're awake and the whole lot of act like their guardian is Coyote." She smiled and she breathed slowly as Tori got her coffee thermos from the front seat and started toward the front door.

The small light Ryan had on in the kitchen area was more than enough for Tori to evade the Elder's relatives while teasing them at the same time. As she lightly skipped around a suddenly outstretched arm, the owner of the arm whispered, "Darn it!"

She chuckled. "The lot of you are as bad as the children," she said softly.

"Well, how do you think we stay so young, Miss Tori?" the voice asked.

Tori shook her head and smiled at her boss. "You married into the goofiest family in the Diné Nation, Chief."

He glanced at her from his place near the stove and nodded. "Sure did. I suppose that's to be expected when the eldest person in the family is not only the most powerful Ha'atathli the Diné have seen, but also the Clan Mother of Ts'ah Yisk'idnii."

She smiled. "And born for Tódích'íi'nii, don't forget. We're a wild bunch ourselves." Tori nodded to the item laid out on the counter. "Anything I can help you with here?"

"Hmm, I had forgotten you were adopted into that clan." He chuckled. "Sure, why don't you pour a couple of cups of coffee out, and put the rest in your thermos... then start up another pot." As she moved to the other side of the kitchen area, Ryan added, "So, I hear you're off on an adventure, Deputy."

She nodded and grinned as she poured the coffee. "Yep, though how you know about it already is intriguing. Madeline hinted at Spirits making arrangements, and I thought that was a little far-fetched. I guess not."

Ryan chuckled. "Cat loves to gossip. I suspect that would be what she was referring to. I'm going to at least give Jer time to wake up and get some coffee in him before he needs to work on transportation down to Albuquerque for our guests."

"I'm sure his wife will appreciate that," she replied with a snicker. Jeremy Kee, Chief of the Window Rock District of the Tribal Police Force, a long-time friend of Tori's, and nominally Ryan's boss, was well known not to be a morning person. "Any thoughts on transportation east?"

"One or two, but I want to chat with Madeline and the rest of them before I get anybody in Albuquerque riled up. You want to grab a couple of plates there? Thanks. It'll take you what...? Four, four and a half hours to get to the station house there?"

"Just about, yep," she replied, setting the plates on the counter beside him. "That's assuming a relatively short visit with Kinta and her clan down in Cibola Forest," she added with a smile.

"It could take all day, then," he said, teasing her. "If you get down there before they do, give me a call. It'll take four hours minimum to ferry the family down so I might have a few things for you to do while you're waiting."

"Sure thing, Chief."

Outside, Andrea had begun her first form, but paused when the form brought her facing the direction where Jimmy still huddled in the darkness of shadow. Standing perfectly balanced on one foot, eyes closed, she almost looked like a bird of prey sizing him up for a meal. The fact that the name of the pose loosely translated as Golden Rooster Stands on Right Leg usually made Andrea smile when she thought about it.

"You might want to go in and get yourself some breakfast, Jimmy. I expect you'll be having a long day."

Then she continued the form, moving smoothly into a second one when the first was complete.

He had avoided everything about the celebration, ceremony, whatever it was as much as possible. The sun disappeared and took its warmth with it. He pulled his sheepskin-lined jacket closer about him and began to pace. As much as he tried not to, he kept thinking about the words the crazy woman had said to him about Kayla. Those words ate at him; the thought that possibly Kayla hadn't willingly betrayed him nagged at him. Hell, the whole fucking business with her nagged at him.

No. She was simply fucking with him again. She had to be. Yet, when she hadn't known he was listening, she had shared the story of her husband, a story that had been a near echo...

Then the rest of her nutty family showed up: the four she called kids, one who looked like the woman she had been talking to, and Him. The last two had taken longer to appear on this side, and all he could do at that point was watch. He had heard the emotion in her voice when she had seen them only. Hope and fear. He had barked out a half laugh; thought she wasn't afraid of anything.

But seeing them embrace was worse. For just a moment, a moment too long, he saw himself and Kayla. Then one of the girls joined them, and he realized with a start that she was their daughter. After another bit, he realized the one called Xavier was her son too, no, their son.

That was more than he could bear resulting in his mouthing off and the one with the braids confronting him. She didn't even flinch when he rammed his claws into her. She was crazier than the other one...

Between the chill of the desert at winter and all the craziness, he got almost no sleep. The cop called the Deputy to take him back to his truck, but She had put the screws to that plan too, wanting to sit and chit chat. Several had offered him shelter, but he turned them all down. They couldn't be trusted, especially not if they were Her family. That Deputy, though, had not offered him a spot. And so he had spent a fitful night tucked up against the side of the house that was mostly out of the near constant wind.

Come morning, he heard her moving about and watched from slitted eyes. There was movement inside too followed by the scent of freshly brewed coffee. The Deputy went in and the Medicine Woman came out. He continued to watch without moving. This woman spoke to him kindly, and that was possibly worse.

He rose and shook his head then moved around the house and out of the yard, away from her and toward the Deputy's car.

As she moved through another form, Andrea watched the flow of the man's qi as he walked toward Tori's car. He had a sickness of spirit so many refugees had when they arrived in the Nation. She supposed the easiest way to explain it was simply that he — that the refugees — had given up hope. Granted it was more complex than that, but she dared not try to understand the loss of hope.

Ryan, I don't believe Jimmy is interested in breakfast at the moment. Would you pack something for him?

Of course, dear. You couldn't manage to charm him into joining us?

He doesn't trust us.

Tori was right about one thing... the woman could make Andrea smile. Dear Spirits, she had been as old as Andrea was now plus an entire lifetime more before Andrea had even been born! The older woman had spoken of the years when she had been without hope, and then her journey to regain it. In her own life, Andrea had known despair; Tori's had been so much greater. Yet the solution was the same for both of them. It was the same for every refugee who came to seek a new beginning with any of the First People: let others inside your heart. Believe that the community will help you. Unless you gave them cause not to, the First People would always help those in need.

In other words, trust people and let them help you.

Andrea had always had family around her. Even those few years in China, she felt embraced by the people of Grandmaster Chen's village as one of them. Tori had chosen to seek out new people and cultures while Andrea wrapped herself in the love of her family and the beauty of tradition.

She knew there was a Darkness coming. Tori's sister had sent word several months ago that the People who lived in the lands outside Mexico City were telling her of their dreams... dreams of Darkness, dreams of the Gods returning. An old man, a priest who remembered the oldest of stories, had told Lelani some tale of her being descended from the ancient priests. Tori admitted she had only mentioned it to Andrea because it was the first communication she'd ever received from her sister where Lelani seemed worried.

As Andrea moved into her final form, she felt the ley line beneath her feet thrum as though it was alive; her twin was practicing, too. Although she suspected the family members from another universe would not be staying long, she still wished it would be possible for them to stay at least for a few days. There were so many things she'd like to ask Andi.

And given the odd message Tori had received from her sister... plus the recent increase in refugees for not only the Diné, but the Zuni, Apache and Nakaii, as well... then the appearance of family from another universe... well, Andrea was wishing for the first time in a century that she could talk to her cousin Talia. Yes, Jodi had the same Curse, but the poor child was only sixteen. It had taken Talia until she was nearly twenty to learn how to filter what she saw of the future to be able to answer a question simply. Andrea wasn't going to put a greater burden on young Jodi unless she absolutely had to.

In the kitchen, Ryan had pulled out a large flour tortilla from the bread drawer and was scraping the contents of the plate he'd prepared for Jimmy into the center of the flatbread. Eggs, chorizo, and breakfast potatoes soon became a breakfast burrito.

"Not comin' in to eat?" Tori asked around the food in her mouth.

"Apparently not," he replied, putting the plate down. "And didn't your mother ever tell you not to talk with food in your mouth, young lady?"

She grinned at him as she finished chewing and swallowing, then shook her head. "Nope. Or if she did, it was so long ago that I don't remember."

Ryan paused a moment to stare at her before rolling his eyes and continuing to expertly fold the breakfast burrito. Rummaging in a lower cabinet for a minute, he finally found another thermos and set it next to the coffee machine.

"Any particular reason why he won't come in and get warm?" Tori ask as she picked up her coffee cup.

Ryan picked up her empty plate and rinsed it off in the sink. "Something about not trusting us." He opened the thermos, filled it with coffee and put the top back on, then set the cup on top, wondering if he'd ever see the thermos again. Not that it mattered... he had three others. He topped off his own cup of coffee. After pulling an old cotton napkin from the back of another drawer, he wrapped the burrito in it, and set it and the thermos on the breakfast bar in front of Tori.

"Andrea thinks it might be a good idea if you and Jimmy got on the road before Madeline and her family wander in from camping."

Looking into her coffee cup, and then draining it, Tori nodded. "Seems prudent." She stood and picked up her thermos, tucking it under one arm. But instead of picking up the other thermos and Jimmy's breakfast, she reached across the counter to shake Ryan's hand. When he extended his hand, she grasped his forearm; a much older form of greeting... and saying goodbye.

"I'll be back, Chief." She met his gaze and nodded just once. "I don't know when, but you have my word."

"I'm holding you to that, Walking Eagle," he said with a smile. "I've gotten used to having you around."

Tori return the smile as she picked up the other thermos and the burrito. "You and the Elder and the rest of her family have wormed your way into my old, stony heart."

"Oh, get out of here, Tori. You're not even as old as I am, despite being close to four centuries my senior."

She laughed as he waved her out the door. Pausing in the doorway, she said, "You're seriously adorable when you pretend you're that clueless, Benally."

She walked out into the cold and slowly brightening day. Tori closed her eyes and took a deep breath as Andrea finished the last of her forms.

"It's going to be a beautiful day in Ganado," she said quietly as she opened her eyes again.

"It's always a beautiful in Ganado, Tori," Andrea replied.

"It sure is. I'll see you when I get back, Elder Yazzie," the older woman said.

Andrea laughed. "Off with you, rapscallion!" She paused to rest a hand lightly on Tori's shoulder as she went back to the house. "May the Spirits watch over you, Tori."

"Thank you, Andrea," she replied.

Then the Ha'atathli looked at Jimmy, waiting by the locked car. "May you walk in beauty, Logan," she said, not raising her voice. There would be no point; like her, like the other cousin kin, his hearing was undoubtedly acute enough to hear even if she spoke more softly. "May peace and harmony surround you."

Tori walked toward the car, holding peace within her as the Ha'atathli had been teaching her over the past few years. She handed the napkin wrapped burrito and Ryan's thermos to Jimmy. "Figured you might get hungry later." She unlocked the passenger side door and went around to the driver side.

The Medicine Woman's words filled his ears, and he shook his head to deny them. She could not be trusted, none of them could. He tried not to smell the cooking food or the brewing coffee. His stomach rumbled at him anyway. He had finished off the last bit of jerky yesterday. He shoved his hands in his pockets and scuffed his boots on the ground, looked anywhere but at the people or the houses. He wished he were anywhere but here, but mostly he wished he were back with Jeannie.

The Deputy returned, pressing stuff into his hands and unlocking the door.

He accepted the offered things with surprise even if he tried to hide it. He mumbled what might have been thanks as he climbed into the SUV. He managed not to tear into the food though he did open the thermos and indulge in the coffee.

They only got about twenty feet before Tori pulled the truck over and stopped.

"We've been asked to wait," she explained without being asked.

He had not heard a radio or anything or seen anyone. He wanted to get the hell out of here. "How long?"

"Shouldn't be long."

And not long it was. Someone knocked on Tori's window. Both occupants of the car looked over. Jimmy groaned. What the hell did she want now? Tori cracked open her door.

"Can I have a minute?" Madeline asked.

Tori shrugged and got out. Madeline took her place. She was different this morning; relaxed, at peace, smiling even. Funny how having your family around you can do that. Being intimate with her Mate didn't hurt either.

"What?" he growled.

"Just one question."

"You expecting an answer?"

"Not exactly, but I have to ask anyway."

His brow creased, and he waited.

"What happened to the man who walked kilometers with a sick WWII POW in his arms to get that man help?"

His eyes narrowed. "What do you know about that?"

"Pacific Theater. War was over. Guards up and left the prisoners to their own devices. A small group went looking for help; two lived long enough to find it. What happened to that man who, against all odds and the better judgment of his fellows, carried another man to the help that saved his life?"

He just looked at her with disbelief. It was partly that she knew about that time, and partly that she thought she knew him well enough to question his choices.

"It's none of your goddamned business," he snapped.

She gave him a look of sympathetic sadness and shook her head. "Stryker really did a number on you, didn't he?" Holding up a hand, she forestalled anything he might say. "Just a rhetorical question. Good luck. Tell Charles the Wolf Pack might be dropping by."

With that, she left the vehicle. "Fair winds, Tori."

"Madeline," the Deputy replied before taking up the driver's seat again and heading out.

Tori drove down the long dirt road in silence, keeping her speed under twenty and watching for the inevitable potholes. Roads like this one were a nightmare after dark, but they weren't a whole lot better during the day. You could at least see most of the obstacles during the day, though, and the Ha'atathli's road was slightly better off than most of the dirt roads in the area. Tori could remember when other people lived up this road; the past fifty to seventy years, though, saw most everyone moving into Ganado proper. And despite that, the folks around these parts still kept this road as clear and safe as possible.

Well, most people didn't have anything else to trade with the Ha'atathli for her services except their labor.

When she eased out onto Arizona 264 and turned right, she let out a sigh of relief and increased to the posted speed limit of forty. Even driving through town looked a whole lot like driving past the rest of the desert. Everything except the school campus and the gas station was set back far enough that, from the road, it was nearly impossible to tell there was a town here. Ganado had always been this way, at least as far as Tori had ever been able to determine. She had walked the Nation when she first decided to live among the Diné; Ganado was smaller then and seemed even more hidden. The Nation had grown, the town had grown... but always away from the highway.

"I'm not much of a talker when I'm driving," she said as they passed the road to the old airport. "And you strike me as a man who likes to keep his thoughts to himself. But if you feel like chatting, just speak up." She glanced over at him; he seemed drawn into himself, and she had to wonder what Madeline had said to him. Well, he'd either stay withdrawn or he'd get all riled by what she'd said. Either way, Tori needed to watch the road.

She turned left onto US 191 where she was able to increase her speed to fifty-five after about a quarter mile or so. It was one of the more well-maintained roads in the Nation, although there wasn't much traffic even when there was a lot of it. It was a major north-south route stretching all the way from Monticello in Utah — where the Ute People took over the maintenance — to the twin cities of Springerville and Eagar in Arizona. South of the twin cities, the road continued on down to the border station — and even beyond that through the Free Lands and into the Nakaii Nations — but maintenance on that stretch left a lot to be desired. It made sense, though. The only people who generally drove down that that stretch of road were the Tribal Police. No one in their right minds wanted to wander the Free Lands between the Diné Nation and the northern border of the Nakaii Nations.

She kind of felt bad about leaving Jimmy with nothing but the clothes on his back and whatever he had in his rucksack to fend for himself until he could get to the Zuni lands east of New Mexico 32. They were generally more relaxed about travelers, although she was pretty sure he'd have eyes on him every step of the way back up to Interstate 40. There were a lot of Shapeshifters in the Zuni Nation. A lot.

Tori was fairly certain she had more jerky in the back of her car than Jimmy could probably carry easily. It would be no problem letting him have as much as he wanted.

Driving down this way was always an opportunity to just think about things. There was absolutely nothing of interest between Ganado — which was not particularly interesting — and Interstate 40. Tori had intellectually understood what Hawk had said about accompanying Madeline and her family, but she didn't really grasp how she could be of help. There were two cousin kin in the family and four mutants. And despite not being a mutant herself, Madeline seemed more than capable of taking care of herself. So it was puzzling; what could she add that they didn't already have?

Contemplating that barely got her halfway to Interstate 40; there wasn't much to ponder unless she wanted to drive herself crazy, and she'd given that up a few centuries back. Why worry about what you can't control? If Hawk had a reason for her going on another Walkabout, she'd find out the reason in due time.

She thought about Lelani. Tori hadn't heard from her sister in about six months and should probably be expecting a message of some sort from her fairly soon. The fact that she'd be out in the Free Lands wouldn't stop Lelani... or rather, whatever messenger she sent... from finding her. Tori had her skills, Lelani had others... always finding Tori was one of them. They never could talk mind to mind unless they were fairly close together — and that would be a handy skill to have — but they knew when the other was in trouble. Hell, Lelani had sent a messenger to Tori before she'd even finished healing after Wounded Knee.

As Tori merged onto Interstate 40 for the few miles it and US 191 were conjoined, she took her attention from the ruminations about her sister to focus on the road. As well maintained as the road coming south was, the ramp onto the Interstate was a mess. She figured it had to do with the equipment needed to repair the overpass... or lack thereof. Still, somebody ought to have the equipment and would lend it to the Diné. Unfortunately, it was probably the Sioux who had that kind of equipment, and getting it through the mountains from the Dakotas down to Arizona would be a bitch.

Yep, a hundred years from now... maybe less... that interchange would become a four-way stop. She nearly laughed at the thought of a stop light — they'd be able to manage a light, wouldn't they? — on the Interstate. Tori enjoyed the few minutes of pushing her speed up to sixty-five before taking the exit back onto US 191 toward St. Johns. Once back on the highway, her speed would fluctuate between thirty and fifty-five, depending on how close they were to one of the many towns still somewhat thriving between Interstate 40 and St. Johns.

About fifteen minutes out from the town, she glanced at her passenger again. "I've got jerky in the back, but if you need anything else, I'll make a stop in St. Johns. It'll be another hour or so to the border."

He wasn't given to much introspection. Chuck had gotten his memories back, all of them more or less. There were days he regretted it. Those were usually the days he tried to drink himself into oblivion. There was that one day he'd taken off and tried to drown his sorrows. He had been a standing disaster. Jeannie... Jeannie came for him. She'd used her gift to get him on his feet and inside a nearby motel. She'd cleaned him up and waited until his system burned it all off. Then she looked at him with pain in her beautiful eyes.

"Why are you doing this, Logan? Why?"

"What do you mean why, Jeannie? You know why."

"You need to stop doing this."

"What's the point? Why should I?"

Then she had said something he never thought he would hear in a million years. "Because I need you, Logan."

"Chuck didn't put you up to this, did he, Jeannie?"

"No, Logan. I swear to you, this is all me."

What did Jeannie see in him? Or was it just that there was no one else left? What would she think of this Madeline person? He had been sure she had a screw loose or three when she talked about coming from elsewhere. She had also known a lot about him, things Jeannie didn't even know. He figured she was some kind of spy or something, right up until he saw the one she called Mate. She was his Jeannie he supposed, but she wasn't anything like Jeannie.

And what was with that damnable question? That memory came easily. Those two men they had stumbled across, nothing but skin and bones due to malnutrition and illness. In spite of their state, they had soldiered on, trying to get help for their fellows, men who had been too sick or weak to make the trek. They had been utterly relieved to see them. One had offered to lead them back to the camp. He had told him just to point him in the right direction and ran the whole way there. In the amount of time it had taken for the men to find his patrol and for him to get to the camp, more had died. One man was on the brink. They asked him to take him, and he had. The man had weighed no more than a child, and he had carried him all the way back to their bivouac site. The men had all been so grateful, to him and to the patrol. He shrugged off their thanks. It had been the least he could do. The real miracle workers were the medics that got them well.

How did she know about that? And why would she ask about it? You know why, said that little voice of conscience. He told it to shut the hell up.

"Need to get my truck back," he said finally. "How do I go about that?"

Tori nodded as if she'd been expecting the question.

"I'm going to assume your truck's in Bernalillo, given that you came in from the east. The Chief's arranging to get the family down to Albuquerque, and since Madeline's plan is to drive your truck out of the Nation, I'm going to make another assumption that he'll arrange for someone to get your truck from Bernalillo to Albuquerque."

She glanced at her passenger, gauging his reaction, before returning her eyes to the road in front of her.

"She plans to obtain another vehicle once in the Free Lands and leave your truck for you. You'll probably want to check in at the border station where you entered Naabeehó Bináhásdzo to find out exactly where it will be."

She paused, wondering how much he knew about the geopolitical boundaries in this area of the country. He was from this world, so he should know roughly who claimed what land. On the other hand, maybe they had enough trouble back East that worrying about what was happening out west wasn't high on their list of priorities. It would be better to err on the side of caution... and common courtesy. After all, he was kin.

"I'm going to drop you off at the north end of Nelson Reservoir, and it's near about two hundred seventy-five miles to the Eastside Eye Forty border crossing.

"You're going to want to head due east, or veer a little to the south, from the reservoir. You'll be in the Free Lands for about thirty miles; once you cross New Mexico 32, you'll be in the Zuni Nation. They'll watch you, but they'll leave you alone unless you do something stupid. You can continue heading east to New Mexico 107; that's about seventy-five to eighty miles. The Diné border comes down to Buck Peak, so head southeast for about ten to fifteen miles before you come back northeast. Oh yeah... mountains. You'll climb them, although they're not high peaks. You'll be heading up toward the intersection of Eye Twenty Five and US Sixty; make sure you stay on the east side of Eye Twenty Five once you find it. That's probably about thirty-five miles.

"Then follow along US Sixty — keep to the south side — all the way to New Mexico 41... forty-five, fifty miles. You're going to start getting into more populated areas, but again... stay cool and folks will let you be. They're not as laid back as the Salish," she said with a smile that had a hint of sadness and nostalgia, "but then no one is.

"Head north along New Mexico 41, stay east of the road, for about thirty miles until you get to Eye Forty. From there, follow along for about thirty-five miles, on the south side, to the border station at New Mexico Three.

"You'll know if you stray too close to the Diné border." Tori shook her head. "They have some kind of wards, and just what they are or how they work is way above my pay grade, but they knock your head about a bit. Had one guy who described it as a tennis match inside his head, a kid said the inside of his brain itched, a woman claimed her sinuses filled with concrete."

She shrugged. She really didn't have any idea how it all worked, just that it did. Most of the time. There were those who managed to ignore or push past the pain and cross into the Nation, usually along the eastern border in northern New Mexico.

"Oh, about wildlife... nothing smaller than the wolves and coyotes are interested in two legged critters. Coyotes don't care for our kind and wolves will leave us alone unless they feel threatened. Any bears in the mountains ought to be hibernating, which is a good thing because they're just plain ornery and don't care who we are. Don't see any of the big cats this far south anymore."

Tori watched the sign post flash by that indicated they were approaching St. Johns.

"So, given all that information — which I'll grant is a lot to throw at you all at once — you need anything else? Clothes, a canteen, other food? The general store's only a couple of blocks out of the way."

"That's her plan is it? Was she going to bother to ask me? Of course not."

His irritation was understandable. Besides that loop she threw him for this morning with that damnable question, now she was planning on using his truck.

"Free Lands? That's what you call it outside of here? It ain't free, I can tell you that."

He listened to the myriad and lengthy directions. Apparently they expected him to walk back to where he crossed into their territory... which really made no sense to him, not to mention it make getting back home take that much longer. Sure he could push himself and live off the land, but why the hell should he have to?

"Why can't I just get my truck from her when she's done using it since I ain't got a choice in the matter?"

Tori looked over at him, and she couldn't keep the fact that instincts were warring with her rational self from showing on her face. She was quiet as she drove into town and turned left off Commercial Street onto White Mountain Drive. In fact, she didn't say anything until she'd driven through town and was able to bring the speed back up to fifty-five.

"I don't think you understand. If someone from inside the Nation doesn't drive that truck out of the Nation, it's going to stay right where it is. Maybe it will sit until it falls apart from neglect, but more likely just until one of our doctors needs a new vehicle.

"Madeline is doing you a favor, both by driving your truck out and by leaving it where you'll be able to find it. And she'll leave it where you can find it when she's done with it, so it gets back into your hands. It's my understanding that she and her family have no intention of coming back this way. It wouldn't kill you to be grateful for small favors, youngling."

Then her nostrils flared and her grip on the wheel tightened. She was trying to contain the wildness because the judgment needed to drive a car at the maximum speed limit pretty much flew out the window when she gave into the wildness. There was a time and a place to revel in the true nature of the cousin kin; now was neither the time nor the place. Tori used every bit of control she'd learned over four centuries and a few decades to keep her claws sheathed.

"The Free Lands are officially known as the Free For All Lands, and I don't need children lecturing me about what's outside the Nations of the First People," she growled. "I walked the lands and my parents died out there. So grow the hell up, and stop talking out of your asshole."

His mouth opened then closed then opened again, although no sound came out. He was going to protest...

Madeline was doing him a favor?? She owed him more than a favor. She had dragged his ass more than halfway across the country, through much of what would be called God-forsaken.

Youngling? Youngling??

Again he imitated a fish out of water. Then, finally he noticed something... something different. His brows drew together.

Children? Did she just call him a child?!?

His scowl became deeper, but that thing nagged him again. His nostrils twitched, and he looked at the woman driving once again. He had thought she was just one of them. But she wasn't... not the First Peoples and not a normal.

She's one of us? A mutant?? A Feral mutant... like me...

His eyes widened a bit and he sat back in his seat, a somewhat stunned look on his face.

His silence allowed Tori to get her own emotions under control again. Dear gods of all the Peoples! He had been acting like a petulant child since she arrived at Andrea's home last night. And the scent of entitlement that wafted about him like a cloud of perfume reminded her of far too many ill-behaved children in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. It had mostly been the children of the White Man, but the children of the First People hadn't been immune to the phenomenon.

At least something she said had rattled him. She could see why Madeline had felt the need to occasionally antagonize him. Her children had probably been better behaved, more courteous, and far less self-centered as teens that Jimmy was after a couple of hundred years.

She drove in silence the remainder of the way to the border station, pushing her speed up to sixty-five until she reached the twin cities. The road wound through the towns, necessitating a slow down to forty-five... and even thirty in some places. Outside Eagar, as much as she would have liked to floor it and get down to the border that much sooner, for the car's sake she maintained a steady fifty miles an hour.

Still, it was only forty-five minutes after she reprimanded him that she pulled off into the parking lot at the reservoir. She said nothing as she turned off the car and got out, pocketing the keys. She had offered him some jerky, so she went around the back, opened the hatch and grabbed a large handful. She tied it in a bundle with a piece of twine, then closed the hatch.

Jimmy was still sitting in the car, looking like he had been kicked in the head. Tori looked at him through the windshield, growled, and slapped the jerky on the hood of the car before turning and walking to the booth where the border guard watched... and stayed warm.

"Heya, Eddie, how's it going? The family doing all right?"

"Mornin', Tori. Pretty dull down here, as usual," he said, happy for the company even if it was likely to be a short visit. "The family's fine... the little one's getting all excited about learning how to read." He laughed. "I sure don't remember being that excited about it, but I guess someone's gotta be the brains of the family."

Tori smiled. "I remember when I learned to read... Dang, that was some exciting stuff! I'd rather read stories, though, and that's the truth."

"So, what do have for me here?"

Tori turned to lean against the frame of the booth, folding her arms as she watched Jimmy. "Visitor wore out his welcome. It happens."

"Yep," Eddie agreed. "It happens."

The man Madeline had introduced as Jimmy sat staring blankly out the window, his mind miles and years away. He hadn't been this confused in decades, not since Chuck brought all those memories back. Now he was thinking maybe Chuck had done some editing while he was in there. Or maybe it was just having been around that crazy woman for too long. Maybe her crazy was rubbing off on him. With a noise that was part growl and part sigh, he got himself out of the Deputy's truck and collected his rucksack. He also did not pass up the offering of jerky that she had left on the hood. He might be stubborn and irritated by the whole last part of this 'adventure', but even he knew not to turn away food when it was offered. He drained the last of the coffee and left the empty thermos on the seat.

He scuffed his way toward the border guard booth, rucksack over his shoulder and hands stuffed in his pockets. As he looked at Tori, it seemed he might say something. He opened his mouth then closed it and shook his head. He stood there a minute longer before finally asking, "East toward the Zuni you said, till I can turn north toward I-40 where we crossed in?"

Tori gave a nod. "That's right."

He nodded, fixing it in his head. He walked across the invisible borderline, got a few feet away then turned back. "Thanks for the ride."

He didn't wait for an answer, just trudged onward.

© Kelly Naylor and ividia kt