Low Midnight Page 39

Then she learned about Sand Creek. The old Indian at the photography shop said everyone was dead. It seemed he did not exaggerate. She knew, then, that no Indian medicine man, even if she could find one still living, would ever help her, a white woman, learn their secrets. She could not blame them for refusing her.

People told ghost stories about Sand Creek, and even if she never learned a scrap of Indian magic, she wanted to follow the thread of inquiry to its end.

She traveled to Lamar by train, then hired a horse to make the rest of the journey. She brought little with her—a dowsing rod, some candles and sage for dispelling, and a charm meant to attract ghosts. Mainly she wanted to observe. She’d never stopped hunting for fairies.

She’d been told this spot of land was haunted, that you could not step onto it without feeling the misery, the abject tragedy of what had happened. She’d been told one could see the ghosts rising from the ground where the massacre had taken place. Some still called it the Battle of Sand Creek, but more and more the word “massacre” superseded the previous title. After all, one could hardly call it a battle when one of the two sides had laid down their weapons.

A full moon rose over the prairie. It was still several hours until midnight, but she’d been walking an hour already, guiding her horse along a likely path. She hadn’t asked for specific directions because she didn’t want to know; if this place really was so powerful, she ought to be able to feel the spirits.

When the hired horse planted its feet, shying away from an invisible spot ahead, she stopped and set up her little camp, feeding and hobbling the horse, spreading her bedroll, and making a fire to boil water for tea.

She stayed calm and breathed deeply, letting her senses, her presence, her mind, settle into the place. A cold wind blew. Sitting on the blanket, she wrapped her coat and another blanket around her and moved close to the fire. She wasn’t going to get any sleep, which was fine, that wasn’t her purpose here. Nearby, her horse shuffled in its hobbles and nibbled at the dried winter grasses, a calming noise against the wind. Patches of snow lay here and there, left over from the last storm and glowing silver in the moonlight. This far east, at night, the mountains of the Front Range weren’t visible. Nothing but prairie and farmland all around her.

The horse, she noticed, wouldn’t move any further north than the spot where she’d made her fire. It wandered back and forth, never straying far, but only on one side of her camp. She directed her attention north, then. Peeling out of her warm blankets, she went to her saddlebag, found the right charm, and lit the candle from a brand she took from the fire. Moving a little ways off, turning her back to the fire and letting her eyesight adjust to the night, she set the candle on a clear space of ground, clasped the charm between her hands, and murmured the words to waken it.

She reached up and swiped her hand across the air as if she werepulling back a curtain—a metaphorical action, but one with consequences.

Still, nothing but a faint wind rustled the grasses and moonlight.

She spoke softly, carefully. “I would like to talk to you. I know a great wrong was done to you and you have no reason to listen to me, to trust me. But my intentions are good, I think you’ll find. I simply want to learn—”

A gun fired, a sound like a single concentrated crack of thunder, painful to her ears. Then another fired, and another, then many, all at once. Nothing at all like the Wild West Show, this was the sound of war, of being in the middle of a battle and having the world explode around you. She wondered how soldiers stood it, their ears tearing apart while they raised their own weapons and hoped to function as they’d trained. All she could do was squeeze hands over her head and curl up on the ground, hoping to protect herself from this onslaught.

But there was no battle. No shouting, no men bearing rifles, no smell of burning gunpowder. Just the noise, the ghost of long-ago events. She did, however, catch a faint scent of blood.

She grabbed her bundle of sage, lit it from the embers of her fire, and swept its pungent, earthy smoke all around her. “Aufere, aufere, aufere!”

The horse shied, hopped a step, then settled back to grazing. It hadn’t heard any gunfire or it would have bolted, hobbles or no.

There was no gunfire, no phantom sounds or smells. The prairie was silent again. It wasn’t real. But something had happened—not ghosts, maybe. But something.

She stayed at her camp until dawn, but she didn’t sleep. Sitting wrapped in her blanket, she fed twigs into the fire to keep it burning low, and looked out at the prairie, her ears still ringing from phantom gunfire. Dawn came slowly.

After packing her things and brushing and saddling her horse, she took a few moments to walk around the site, stepping carefully on hard-packed soil, last year’s dried grasses catching on the hem of her skirt. The massacre had happened more than forty years ago. A generation. But that old man—he could have been a boy here. No physical sign of the Indian camp, of what had happened here, remained. The prairie, the wind and the dust blowing over it, had obscured it all. Only memories remained. Memories and shadows.

Her toe hit against something with a metallic clink. She knelt, searched, found what her step had dislodged: a brass bullet casing, weathered and corroded. It had obviously been lying here, half buried, for years. When she lifted it, it felt much heavier than it should have. As if the bullet was still housed in it, as if the weight of what the bullet had done still clung to it.

Of course, there was no way to tell that this came from a gun that had been used in the massacre. Forty years had passed, forty years of people crossing this patch of ground for any number of reasons. No reason to think this particular casing was cursed.

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