For a breathless moment, Sage Denzer peered out her bedroom window and watched a hawk in flight. To her left, a clear-running stream trickled over stones, a runoff from the Blue Earth River. To the right, tall, sturdy pines and thick-trunked oaks reached skyward. This morning she found it difficult to think about Long Island and her past life, but memories returned nonetheless.
She and Grandmother had lived above a tavern in an overcrowded borough of the city where pigeons and mice kept them company. Other renters lived there too, sailors, merchants, even a professional card player at one time. But never other children.
Mrs. Cox watched over Sage the first ten years of her life while Grandmother ministered to the sick. Remembering Mrs. Cox grew harder every day, except for two things—she was older than Methuselah and she smelled funny.
After her eleventh birthday, Sage accompanied Grandmother on her forays into the belly of the city. Their journeys took them down the alleyways and along the cobbled streets to mop the brows of feverish children and bring babies into the world. Sage had witnessed so many births she could deliver a child on her own by the time she'd reached thirteen years of age.
She recalled the day Grandmother decided to leave New York. A drunken sailor had pinned Sage up against the wall until he met Gran's broomstick across his back. That next day they boarded a vessel that took them to Buffalo and then hitched a ride on a steamer that carried them across the Great Lakes to Milwaukee. In Wisconsin, they joined a wagon train of cheery travelers heading to Minnesota.
A contented sigh left her lips. They'd met Peter Pa on that leg of the journey. He came into the world christened William Peterson, but Sage took to calling him Peter Pa and the name stuck.
He had left Norway, he said, the country of his birth, eager to find his destiny in America. In an all-out effort to promote growth and industry in the new territories, the government offered fertile farm land for a dollar-fifty an acre. Accustomed to hard work beneath a pitiless sun, Peter Pa took the generous offer and joined the long line of Conestogas traveling across the plains.
Ramrod straight and lean, Peter Pa’s muscular build alluded to a life of hard work. Clear, aqua-blue eyes, banked by tiny crow's feet, danced when he smiled. Fair-skinned with pale blonde hair, Peter Pa remembered things in life most others were inclined to forget.
"A man can get lonely," he'd said to Gran one night. "I wouldn't be against you and the girl settling down with me on the eighty acres."
Gran had turned to him with gratitude in her eyes. "I imagine we can live there as well as anywhere."
So here they had settled, seven years ago, an environment that suited the adventuresome Sage well.
With a contented sigh, Sage left her bedroom this morning, walked onto the porch and found Gran and Peter Pa in their Windsor rockers, enjoying their coffee amid the splendid view.
Gran smiled and crooked her finger; a signal Sage should come close for a peck on the cheek. "Morning, child."
"And a fine morning it is." Sage glanced skyward and then lowered her head to kiss Gran's weathered brow.
Looking over the rim of his cup, Peter Pa met her eyes. "I'll wager you're headed into the forest?"
"What gave me away, the smile or the knapsack?"
His blue eyes twinkled. "Your love of the creatures, trees, and all Mother Nature has to offer."
Her gaze swept over the countryside surrounding the cabin. "I didn't know heaven on earth existed until we arrived here."
Gran eyed the knapsack slung over Sage's shoulder. "What will you search for today, granddaughter?"
"Yesterday I spied a crop of yarrow and motherwort, but in my haste to get home, passed them by."
"And what are the herbs used for, child?"
She smiled into her grandmother's eyes. "You think to test my knowledge? Very well, mixed together, they act as a strong sedative." Rocking back on her heels in a demonstration of boastfulness, she added, "And I found white oak bark."
Peter Pa's laughter drew her attention. He seemed to enjoy the banter about herbs and roots and their slapdash method of testing her knowledge. "And what will your grandmother do with white oak bark?"
"Apply it to small skin abrasions, but never large wounds. The remedy could inflame the injury."
"Did I not tell you, William?" Gran clapped her hands. "She knows every root, stem and plant in the forest."
"You've taught her well, Evrasina."
Eager to be about her escapade, Sage bounded down the steps, crossed a nearby field, and scurried into the woods.
* * *
Evrasina waited until Peter Pa disappeared into the barn before she entered the modest kitchen to prepare their evening meal. Rolling out the crust for a berry pie, she pondered her actions of twenty years ago. The oppressive guilt that had weighed her down for two decades became more oppressive with each passing day. Today, come hell or high water, she would cleanse her soul of her most grievous offense to the only friend she had in the world.
The lazy afternoon danced across the white-washed, plank flooring of the porch and a soft breeze fanned their flushed faces. Evrasina drew a long breath before launching into her long overdue confession.
Halfway through, Peter Pa's accusatory tone interrupted her words. "What in the world were you thinking, Evrasina?"
"Oh, William, don't berate me. I imagine I wasn't thinking at the time."
Evrasina felt sick to her stomach. "Everything happened with startling rapidity. One minute I thought the child dead, wrapped in muslin and lying in a wooden crate—her coffin." Bones creaked as Evrasina rose from the rocker and paced the porch. "I intended to prepare her for burial in the morning, but a strange noise at night awoke me. My mind sluggish, the cottage lit by a single candle lantern, I ventured toward the sound."
Peter Pa had stopped talking, and when she looked at him, a worried expression masked the features on his fair-skinned face. "Imagine my shock at finding the wee infant alive, not only alive, but eager to take sustenance. Throughout the night, I pondered the miraculous event, and by the time the sun rose, I'd made my decision."
His solemn words struck a regretful chord in her heart. "You kidnapped a child, Evrasina. It matters not that the parents believed her dead. Sage has a right to know from whence she came; it is her inherent right."
She whirled around to face him, remorseful tears flooding her eyes. "A thousand times I've tried to tell her, and a thousand more the words stuck in my throat. One day I must answer to my Lord for the heinous offense." She resumed her frantic gait. "Whatever penance He doles out I will serve in exchange for having her with me all these years."
"Good, God, woman. Sage has no idea?"
"None." She flinched from his expression. "She believes me to be her grandmother, thinks her parents died in an epidemic?"
"For the first time in my life, I'm rendered speechless."
"Do you think I've not suffered for my malice?" She wrung her hands. "I knew she'd want for nothing, and I wanted her to pick up the gauntlet so my life's work held meaning." She shook her head. "I loved her from the first moment I laid eyes on her."
"Sage has never questioned you about her birth, her parents' death?"
Her shoulders sagged. "Once."
"She wanted to know what her mother looked like and what type of work her father had engaged in before...before they passed."
"What information did you impart?"
"I couldn't tell her about the McCains. I'd change the subject, told her I loved her unconditionally and to revisit the past pained me."
Relief flooded her when he rose from the rocker and placed his hands on her shoulders. "You must tell her. What if something happens to you and she's never told?"
"Oh, dear friend." The tears flowed. "That's why God placed you in our path?" She turned to face him, wiping the tears away with a well-worn hankie. "What if she leaves me, or worse despises me for my actions?"
Peter Pa shook his head. "Sage doesn't have it within her to hate, and she would never desert you."
"Where do I begin?"
"At the beginning, of course.”
She blew her nose and nodded. "God grant me strength."
* * *
Sage followed a narrow path to the river, removed her clothing, and took a leisurely dip.
She didn't miss the city; nothing compared to living in this hardy land. A daily staple to their diet, fish were abundant, and the close proximity of the river offered a variety of wildlife—muskrat, mink, beaver, and otter.
"The creatures will alert you to danger and approaching storms," Peter Pa had said. "If you use your ears and eyes, you'll learn their warnings."
He'd taught her many things about the forest—how to construct a shelter with branches and boughs, how to assemble a travois from birch limbs, and how to follow the sun and stars if she became lost. The only father she'd ever known, she loved Peter Pa with all her heart.
In the quiet solitude of the forest, she struggled into her clothing after her swim and jumped when a cranky blue jay screeched from a nearby poplar. The small hairs on her forearms rose. She sensed danger. After glancing in all directions and reassuring herself nothing seemed amiss, she discarded the subtle warnings and rose.
Intent on bringing home the yarrow and motherwort, she retraced her steps of yesterday and ventured into the deepest, darkest part of the woods. Lost in daydreams, the second warning jolted her out of her thoughts. Perched on a cottonwood limb ahead, an eerie screech from a black crow echoed around her. She scanned her surroundings and focused on the sights and sounds of the forest. And she watched the crow. More intent on preening his shiny black coat at the moment, Sage moved on.
The next alert came from a jackrabbit. Scurrying in front of her, he shot headfirst into a nearby bush. A dark and sinister force rode the wind. She narrowed her eyes and studied the thick brush along the stream ahead, every muscle in her body drawn taut.
A gasp left her lips when something moved near the water and her inner voice warned her to retreat. She retraced her steps, cut through a stand of pines, and approached the stream from the opposite direction.
The pulse pounded in her neck. From here, she had an excellent view of the stream and of the dead man lying on its banks. His right arm stretched toward the stream, his long, bronze fingers dangling in the aqua-blue depths. Dressed in doeskin pants, fringed moccasins hugged his long, muscular legs. An eagle's feather stuck out from behind his left ear, contrasting with his blue-black, shoulder-length hair.
Sage eyed him with caution. Dark red blood ran the length of his arm and faded to a frothy pink where it hit the water. A crimson stain covered his pants from thigh to moccasin on the left, seeping into the ground beneath him. The enormous amount of blood loss lent little credibility to the hope he still lived.
Sage advanced with caution and froze when the unmistakable whinny of a horse reached her ears. She craned her neck toward the tall marsh grass and spied a magnificent black and white animal. The beast walked forward, nuzzled the man's face and pawed at the ground. His horse? She inched her way toward the steed, beckoning him, her tone soft and low. The creature's large brown eyes watched her every movement and bolted when she reached out to grab the halter-rope about his snout. Someone had trained him well.
With a disapproving snort she called after him. "Run you stubborn beast." She nodded toward the injured man. "This one will receive my attention now."
Garnering her courage, she leaned over him. Not a sound came from his still form. Positioned for hasty flight, she dropped to one knee, hoping to get a better view of his torso. His chest rose and fell in even, labored breaths. He clung to life, yet dwelt in the dream world. Unintelligible words escaped his lips when she rolled his body to the side to assess his wounds. She placed her hand to his forehead to confirm her suspicions—a raging fever consumed him.
She searched her surroundings and contemplated a plan. She'd never expected to find a man in the forest, much less one near death. She rose and tore several long strips from the hem of her undergarments and unsheathed the knife she kept hidden in her boot. Setting upon a nearby birch and its low-hanging branches, long minutes later, she'd constructed a sturdy travois.
Amid anguished moans from the brave, she rolled his golden-bronze body onto the litter and tied him down with the remaining strips from her underclothing. Then she dropped to her haunches and studied her handiwork... and him.
His magnificent features of his face were strong and balanced; the taut, smooth skin kissed by the sun. Ebony eyes, the color of black-eyed-Susans, fluttered open for a moment and rolled in their sockets. Her heart wrenched from the dazed look of pain in his eyes. As quickly as they opened, they closed, and the brave slipped back into blessed forgetfulness.
The painted pony had returned to sniff things out, and this time she had to catch him. She pulled a handful of berries from the pouch at her waistband and stretched her arm out toward his long snout. "You want them, great beast?" She popped one into her mouth and smacked her lips. "Yum, come, take your fill."
The horse dragged a foot through the sand and advanced, and soon another foot followed. Within inches of the berries now, he dropped his head and lapped them up from her hand.
Sage took hold of the bridle and breathed a sigh of relief. "He is your master and it's fitting you should pull him." She led him toward the injured man.
Cutting the reins with her knife, she used them to tie the travois to the horse, leaving the harness intact. She surveyed her work again. Strapped down on the travois, he seemed secure. She could do nothing about the blood oozing from his wounds, but Grandmother would know what to do.
Sage stopped twice in the bowels of the forest to check on him. The blood seeped through his pants and onto the ground, leaving a crimson trail in their wake. Relief flooded her when the swirling chimney smoke from the cabin rose before her.
"Please don't die." She crossed herself. "We're almost there."
* * *
From the porch, Evrasina cupped a hand over her brow. "Sage returns leading a black and white pony. How does the girl come across so many abandoned beasts?"
Peter Pa rose from his chair with a chuckle. "She comes by it naturally."
At seventy-odd years, an agile Evrasina bounded down the steps, determined to meet her granddaughter in the middle of the field.
Out of breath, at last she reached Sage and craned her neck toward the travois. "Wherever did you find him, child?"
"Next to a stream in the forest." Her voice a mixture of hope and fear, Sage looked into her grandmother's eyes. "He's lost much blood."
"If we don't get him into the cabin, he'll lose more than blood."
Sage's voice wavered. "You can't let him die. Promise me."
"I'll do my best, child. Now, hurry."
Peter Pa joined them at the bottom of the porch steps. Sage cut the reins from the travois and the trio pushed and pulled the litter into the cabin.
Breathless from her endeavors, Evrasina bent at the waist and drew several deep breaths. "Now we carry him into your room and lift him onto the bed, Sage."
Peter Pa slipped his strong arms underneath the man's armpits. "On the count of three, I'll lift his torso, and you take his legs."
Amid a series of wheezes, they strained and labored and soon had him lying on the bed. Evrasina looked down at his prone body, placed a palm to his forehead and frowned. "He burns with fever."
Pushing the curtain aside separating the bedchamber from the kitchen, she hobbled into the kitchen and returned moments later with two jars. One contained white willow, the other burdock. She removed the lids and tossed a pinch of both herbs into a shallow dish and added water. "For the fever and the infection." She added a pinch of black haw. "This for pain."
Placing her hand behind his neck, the healer brought his head up and spoon-fed him the concoction. He coughed from the bitter remedy trickling down his throat. She eased his head to the pillow and glanced at her granddaughter across the bed. Her long, chestnut hair, dampened by her exertions, lay in a wild mass about her shoulders. Her brown eyes, slanted upward at the corners and banked by long, thick black eyelashes, were also moist, whether from the sweat trickling down her forehead or tears, she didn't know.
She studied Sage with concerted effort. The girl had evolved into a stunning woman, and by the look in her eyes, possessed all the hopes and dreams of one. How foolish of her to think the girl would remain a child forever.
"Evrasina?" Peter Pa clapped his hands. "The man needs your attention."
Bolting into action, she removed the blood-soaked moccasin from his foot and split the tan leggings with one swift cut from her knife.
"His arm is bleeding too," Sage said.
Evrasina leaned over his battered body, her aged eyes focusing on the wound to his arm. "A minor scrape." She smacked her lips and allowed her gaze to travel to his leg again. "Gunshot."
Her granddaughter's eyebrows rose. "He's been shot?"
With a nod, Evrasina probed the wound with two fingers in an attempt to locate the culprit. The man moaned and retracted his leg. "The ball remains lodged against his thigh bone."
Sage's voice trembled. "What must we do?"
"Bring clean towels, a bowl of hot water, goldenseal and cloves. First we must disinfect the wound and then remove the bullet." Evrasina turned to Peter Pa. "You must tie his limbs to the bed post, William."
Peter Pa hustled from the room, mumbling under his breath. "Whenever you call me William, I know the situation is quite serious."
While waiting for the black haw to take effect, Evrasina inspected the flesh around the wound. "The bullet left a hole the size of a child's fist where it entered. Tissue and muscle oozes from the wound, hiding the bullet from the naked eye."
Sage alternated between glancing to the bed and chewing on her finger. At last, his body went limp and his breathing calmed.
Again, Evrasina dug for the bullet. After three failed attempts, she shook her head, heaved a laborious sigh and cast hopeful eyes on Sage. "I can't find it, child; poor eyesight and shaky fingers."
Sage's face paled. "What are we to do?"
"You must find it, dig it out."
She shook her head. "No, do not ask this of me."
"You've done the same with a wounded doe." She drew the words out. "This is no different."
"I can't, it's not the same. This is not an animal but a flesh and blood man."
Her voice firm, yet calm, Evrasina pressed her again. "The steely chains of death await him if you do not try."
Sage pushed the breath out through her lips. "Lord, help me." Shaky fingers entered the torn flesh searching for the slug. "I feel the hard metal, but..." Countless times she tried, yet the bullet escaped her grasp. Moans from the brave seemed to shatter her concentration. She stopped and wiped the sweat from her forehead with her sleeve.
"Try again." Evrasina forced a calm tone. "The bullet must come out."
Sage raised her head skyward, calling on the spirits. "I beseech you to help me." Focusing on a picture hanging on the wall over the headboard, she resumed the daunting task. "Warm, sticky blood hinders me." Moments later, she pulled her fingers from the wound and held the bullet in the air. "I have it!"
Peter Pa's eyes found hers from across the room. "Bravo, girl, you did it."
Evrasina threaded her bone needle with sinew and closed up the jagged wound. "We'll need a poultice now, cat's claw and bayberry to fight the infection and fever."
Sage scurried from the room and returned moments later with a muslin cloth soaked in herbs.
Her stitching complete, the healer stepped back and allowed Sage to apply the poultice. Like before, her granddaughter's gaze lingered on the man's face.
"There's nothing we can do now." Evrasina clasped her granddaughter's hand. "God will decide his fate."
"I'll stay with him, Grandmother. You need rest."
"Other than cooling his brow, there is little you can do for him now, child."
Sage pulled a chair from the corner and set it down beside the bed. "I will stay," she repeated. "If it's God's plan to take him, no one should die alone."
"What a strong, spirited woman you are, Sage." Emotion choked her words. She paused for a moment and continued. "You've have made me so very happy, and so proud."
Her soft voice reached Evrasina's ears. "I learned to be strong and spirited from a kind woman who descends from hearty German stock. Do you know her, Grandmother?"
The healer could no longer hold her tears at bay. "The Lord smiled upon her the day you entered her world."
* * *
Drifting in and out of sleep, Sage jackknifed up in the chair. Through the dim candlelight, she narrowed her eyes and focused on the man in her bed. His eyelids fluttered before he made an attempt to rise, and then with a frustrated groan, he collapsed into the mattress again.
"Grandmother, Peter Pa," she called out. "Come at once!"
His coal black eyes darted about the room, searching for an escape route. With great effort, he pushed up onto his elbows and surveyed his bandaged leg.
"Please, be still." She placed her hand on his chest and eased him down again. Certain he couldn't understand a word she spoke, she babbled anyway. "You'll open the wound and we'll have a fine mess on our hands then."
Grandmother bustled into the room with cup in hand and Peter Pa following close behind. She held the cup to the man's lips and motioned for him to drink. For a brief moment, panic filled his pain-filled eyes, but then he seemed to resign himself to the grave situation. He drank Grandmother's remedy and watched them over the rim of the cup, then returned his head to the pillow and drew several deep breaths.
With his hands fisted, his dark eyes wary, the man watched Peter Pa inch his way to the bed. "Do not be frightened, young man. No harm will come to you here."
Sage ventured to the other side of the bed. "He must understand he'd be dead if we meant to harm him."
"Give him time to adjust to his strange surroundings," Evrasina said. "He'll soon remember the events that brought him to our door."
"Water." The single word rang clear from the man's lips.
Finding it difficult to hold back her surprise, Sage's voice rose. "He speaks our language!"
Fear evaporated as he nodded.
Sage scurried into the kitchen, returning in short order with a tray, a glass of water and a bowl of hot broth. Dragging his body into a sitting position, he scooted back until his spine and head rested against the oak headboard.
Sage set the tray on his lap, handed him the spoon and with shaky fingers, he dipped it into the broth, brought it to his lips and swallowed.
Evrasina clapped her hands when the last drop of broth went into his mouth. "He shall live; his hunger is a good sign."
Standing at the end of the bed, Peter Pa kept his voice low. "You have been on a dark journey, son." He pointed to Sage. "She found you by the stream west of our cabin. You were near death from loss of blood." He nodded toward Evrasina. "She is a great medicine woman and snatched you from the arms of death." His closed fist whipped through the air for drama.
The young man's brow creased and a thoughtful expression transformed his face. After a lengthy pause, he spoke. "I stopped at the stream to drink and saw the image of a man in the water. He raised a rifle. The first shot hit me here." He rubbed his wounded arm. "I tried to run, but the second shot knocked me off my feet."
"I found you lying next to the water," Sage said.
"He left me for the animals, and then darkness took me before I could crawl away." The strong potion took effect causing his eyelids to droop. "My horse." He slurred the words. "I must return to my People."
"Wait," Sage said. "Your name, what is your name?"
"Wanapaya, he whispered as his last shred of consciousness slipped away.