The jump took me away from that jackpot. Now I skidded to a stop and stumbled. A gunshot rang out. I ducked, tucked into a shoulder roll, and tried to get my bearings. The currents of the time-space continuum made the final destination of each jump a mystery. Every ride on the lightning was an adventure.
My breathing came in little hitches. I squatted on my haunches, pressed up against a boulder, and surveyed the landscape. I was on a wide expanse of barren terrain circled by rugged outcroppings and dotted by stone sculptures that towered above the valley floor.
Vast and beautiful desert country filled with relics and secrets—it had a comforting quality. The sky was a blue on blue masterpiece.
“Mister, how’d you get here?” a shaky voice asked. I slowly turned my head in its direction and found myself staring at the business end of a rifle. A sick feeling crawled through my belly.
The gun had my complete attention. It was held by a young girl. She was ruddy cheeked and trembling. Her finger was on the trigger, and all of a sudden I realized a nervous twitch or muscle spasm could end my life.
“I’m a friend,” I said firmly. I held my hands up in surrender.
“A friend of who?” she demanded.
I stared into her eyes—they were skittish and wary. “I promise I mean you no harm. I’m here to help.”
She tensed up even tighter and poked the barrel at me. “Help? Who are you? Where’d you come from? How’d you get here?”
I carefully removed my hat. “Miss, that’s all kind of complicated.” I stretched my arms out wide and gave her a shrug of a smile. “I really am here to help, so please point that gun in another direction.”
She eyed me, much like a frightened puppy that’d been beaten. She wanted to believe me. I could see a want-to behind the fear in her eyes.
I gauged her to be twelve years old or so, a pretty little thing with long brown hair that was tangled and frizzy. Her clothes amounted to rags—patched dungarees and the tattered remnants of a smock someone had refashioned into a shirt.
The tension between us was real. It gave the air a coppery odor that made my nostrils prickle. Our eyes were locked together. She was unsure of what to do next, and I was looking for an opening.
Something moved behind her and she flinched, eyes bending over a shoulder. I sprung like a cat, striking the rifle barrel as it exploded with a near deafening roar. The bullet sailed harmlessly into the sky.
I jerked the weapon out of her hands and gave her a big, old bear hug. She sagged against me—her whole body wilted and I had to hold tight to keep her on her feet. She felt as used up as a worn out dish-rag.
“Sissy?” a scared voice piped up from behind us.
“Sissy’s okay,” I said. “My name’s Jedediah. I’m a friend.” Holding the dead weight of the girl in the crook of my left arm, I gripped the rifle in my right hand and aimed it like a pistol. It was a Sharps carbine, a reliably fine firearm for its time. “Show yourself.”
A scruffy boy peered around a large rock. He’d been flattened against the ground, and now, he stood up. He was barefoot and wide-eyed. He was no more than eight years old and had the look of a terrified animal. His face was smudged with dirt. He tried on a tiny smile that slipped away too quickly.
Sissy stiffened, then pushed away and abruptly sat down. The boy eased over to her and knotted his arms around her neck. They clung to each other with a helplessness that bordered on hopelessness.
I meandered around. There was still plenty of daylight, though the sky was beginning to bleed gray. A short distance away was the burnt remains of a wagon beside a patch of green with a few scrub trees.
I glanced at the children. They were huddled together, and suspiciously watched my every move. I motioned for them to follow and gave a blast of a smile, then headed toward the notch of thatch grass. I noted that they immediately tagged along behind.
It didn’t take a college professor to figure their story. A one-eyed graduate of Moron University could have read the signs.
The oasis had to be one that was well used. It was lush. Water streamed out of a crack in a wall-like rock formation to form a fresh pool.
“How long?” I asked, marking every detail around me.
“Apaches came six days ago,” Sissy answered, settling in a piece of shade with the boy—who I’d learned was named Tad—close beside her.
They’d done well in making camp. The wheels and charred wagon bed had been added to with brush to form a sleeping shelter. I took notice of two piles of rocks side by side beneath a gnarled tree on the far edge of the watering hole.
Sissy saw where I was looking. “Ma and Pa. We buried them. Tad and I were playing near that crevice when the Apaches came.” She pointed to a gaping fissure near the spring. “It’s narrow, but ten feet deep. We pressed in all the way to the back of it. The Apaches never saw us—they killed Ma and Pa, burned the wagon, and drove the oxen and Pa’s horse away. When we were sure they were gone, we did our best to put the fire out. We moved the food supplies into the cave where we’d hid, but there’s only enough left for a few days. We’ve been waiting for another wagon to come along.”
I crouched in front of them. “You done good. I’m sorry about your Ma and Pa.” I searched the horizon to the east, hoping to see a bit of dust. “What year is it?” I asked, looking back at them.
The question startled her. She tilted her head curiously. “How’d you get here?”
“1855,” Tad said, pushing away from his sister. “It was 1855 when we left Missouri for California.”
I nodded as I stood and moved over to a rock encircled fire-pit. “Tad, can you gather some kindling and fuel?”
“Sure,” he said, jumping to the task. “We got the spark fixings stashed in the cave.”
“How’d you get here?” Sissy asked, still seated in the shade. “We saw a flash like lightning come out of the sky, then you were there. I took a shot at you.”
“I’m glad you missed,” I quipped, sitting down cross-legged beside her.
“I usually hit what I aim at,” she said directly. “How’d you get here?”
I ignored her. “I’d guess this is New Mexico.”
“We restocked in Santa Fe a month ago.” She narrowed her eyes at me and persisted, “How’d you get here?”
“Sissy, the universe is full of mystery,” I replied, with a shrug. “I got here. Beyond that there are some questions that don’t have answers.”
She chewed on that for long while. We watched Tad make a fire, carefully feeding it bits of tinder until the flames were ready for sticks. The boy knew what he was doing—it was a near smokeless fire.
Sissy turned to me. “Ma told us stories about the Ancient Ones who first lived in this country. . .” She paused, working through the words in her head. “They had many gods, and believed that this land had hidden doorways to other places and dimensions.” Her face broke into a beaming smile. “I think you came through one of those doors.”
“Your Ma was a smart lady,” I said, giving her a nudge.
We got some grub—jerky and beans—and talked while the night dropped its shades. I assured them I’d stay as long as I could—hopefully see them all the way on trails west or at least to safety.
Stars began to twinkle like candles in faraway windows. Sissy and Tad tucked themselves in beneath the wagon. I collected scraps of firewood, banked the fire, and then stretched out in the shadows away from it.
The sky went on forever, a sparkly blue-black canvas. I adjusted my hat over my eyes, and consciously relaxed. My last thought before sleep took hold was that it felt good to be bound for California.