Buck fumbled in the dark with the keys when he reached the front gate of Thorn’s property. She was asleep in the passenger seat and hadn’t moved since they’d left the Roadhouse. Pard and Maggie were raising a ruckus in the backyard as he unlocked the front door and turned on the porch light. Thorn was dead weight. He had to wrestle her onto the bed. Maggie and Pard watched, wagging their tails, as he pulled off her boots. Knowing how bad it felt to wake up with a hangover, he thought about removing her jeans and blouse. Instead, he covered her with a quilt, deciding he didn’t know her well enough. Turning out the lights, he went into the kitchen.
Maggie and Pard demanded attention. After popping the top on a cold beer he found in the refrigerator, he obliged them. They gobbled up a couple of dog treats, then returned to Maggie’s extra large doggie bed by the stove.
Turning off the lights, he went into Thorn’s cozy den. Pulling off his boots, he plopped on the old couch that sat in front of her pot-bellied stove.
“Good for you, Pard,” he said, glancing at the doggie bed. “At least one of us has a girlfriend to keep them warm tonight.”
A storm came up, with thunder rattling windows as rain drummed a cadence on Thorn’s tin roof. Lost in a dream world, Buck didn’t awaken. At least until a bright light shining in his eyes caused him to open them. When he did, he sat straight up on the couch, not believing what he saw.
Before him stood a beautiful woman, an aura of blue light radiating from her naked body. He first thought it was Thorn. Instead, it was someone he’d never expected to see again. His heart began racing inside his bare chest.
“Is it you, Esme, or am I dreaming?”
“Come to me and see,” she said.”
When he pressed against her and began smothering her with kisses, he knew she was real.
Esme was tall and graceful, her long hair and demanding eyes as dark as the storm raging outside the house. As he pressed against her soft breasts, a familiar rush coursed through his body. Just to make sure it was she, he turned her around. As he remembered, a rattlesnake tattoo highlighted the supple curve of her shoulder.
“It’s been two long years. Not a day has passed that I didn’t think about you,” he said. “Why did you go away?”
“I know it hurt you, Buck McDivit. I could not help it because I am from a different place and time.”
“What place, and what time?” he said.
“You will see. I will take you there. First, you must become as naked as I am.”
Buck’s jeans dropped to the floor. “I’m ready,” he said. “Where are we going?”
“To a place you’ve never imagined,” she said.
Esme held his hand as they passed through the locked door as if it weren’t there. The storm had grown stronger as rain poured down in sheets. Thunder rocked their steps, lightning sizzling across an angry sky.
Sharp stones from the gravel driveway didn’t hurt his feet. Though rain gushed off his head and shoulders, he was oblivious to it. Esme led him down the hill, their feet sinking into the mire as they reached a pond overflowing from the deluge. Lightning laced the darkness above them. He hesitated when she stepped into the roiling water.
“Come with me,” she said.
He continued to waver. “It’s dangerous.”
Pulling him toward her, she said, “Trust me.”
Neck deep in churning water, they embraced as lightning kissed the pond. It set off a kaleidoscope of radiating colors that made his head spin. When he opened his eyes, darkness was gone. So was the storm. Dancing rays of sunshine radiated through the cloudy sky. Birds soared overhead, and only friendly drops of rain rippled the water’s surface.
“We’ve crossed over,” she said.
“That was the wildest ride I’ve ever taken. What just happened?”
“You did this once before. You just don’t remember.”
“Did what?” he asked.
“Walked across time,” she said. “Brace yourself for culture shock because you are now in my world.”
They were in the river. Esme took his hand and led him out of the water to a teepee near its bank. The same teepee Esme lived in when he’d met her near the pagan village of Lykaia. When they pushed through the flap, he saw Beauty, Esme’s giant wolf dog. They moved toward one another, meeting in the middle, and were soon rolling on a deerskin rug.
“Where the hell have you been?” Buck said, giving her big neck a warm hug.
“She’s missed you, and so have I,” Esme said.
“You can’t imagine how much I’ve missed both of you.”
“Yes I can,” she said. “Let’s get you dressed. I have much to show you.”
Soon, Buck looked like a Mississippian warrior, Esme like a medicine woman. Beauty hadn’t left Buck’s side until Esme told her to stay and guard the teepee.
“She doesn’t like crowds,” she said.
Buck gave the large beast another hug and then followed Esme out the door. He could hardly believe the sights that began unfolding around them.
Dozens of canoes occupied the riverbank and more floated in the river. When they crested the natural levee, his jaw dropped. Wooden houses with thatched roofs stretched for as far as he could see. Indian women, naked from the waist up, were working small truck gardens. Men, returning from a hunt, carried a deer and a large turtle.
“They are preparing for the festival,” Esme said.
Buck was curious. “Festival?” he said.
They were both resplendent in colorful paint and feathers. Esme seemed to know everyone and exchanged smiles and greetings as they passed. They soon reached a palisade. Behind the timbered walls, stately mounds, topped by wooden houses, jutted toward the sky. Activity outside the entrance to the palisade was heavy.
“It’s festival day,” she said. “Some of the people have traveled a thousand miles to be here.”
“Tell me about this festival.”
“Tomorrow is the first day of summer, the longest day of the year. For my people, it is one of our holiest days. Today is the eve of the summer solstice. Our chief will speak, and there will be a game of chunkey. Following the game, the bonfire is lit, and everyone feasts, chants, and dances until dawn.”
Buck had met Esme for the first time during a solstice celebration. He remembered because he’d been the only male present. He and several hundred naked pagan females had danced the night away in a solstice ceremony. When he’d met Esme, she’d been the spiritual leader of the pagan enclave known as Lykaia.
“Are we going to dance like we did when we first met?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I am the medicine woman. I must feast with our chief, the elders, and the emissaries from many other tribes. I have other plans for you.”
“Mississippians from all over, Aztecs and Mayans from Mexico, and Anasazi from Four Corners.”
“You must be kidding.”
“I assure you I’m not.”
They all wore their festival best. Pearls, shells, and colorful beads adorned the braids in many of the women’s long hair. Most of the men had painted faces and shaved heads with only a top knot. Colors of their costumes moved like a kaleidoscope in slow motion.
The palisade was on a hill. From their vantage, they could see the bend in the large river. Hundreds of canoes lined the bank, more still arriving. Everyone, it seemed, was smiling.
“How can so many tribes coexist?”
“Spiro, as you know it, is the religious hub of our universe. There can be no war, strife, or disagreement in this holy place, especially on the eve of the summer solstice. Well, except for chunkey,” she said.
The scene reminded him of the open marketplace in Santa Fe. This was similar but ten times larger. A myriad of color, noise, and excitement, and jewelry wasn’t the only thing for sale.
The aroma of fresh corn, squash, grapes, and a dozen other vegetables floated in a warm breeze. A big black dog that no one seemed to own sniffed his leg before disappearing into the crowd.
“This place is shoulder to shoulder,” he said. “Reminds me of the crowds at the state fair or an OU football game.”
“There are many thousands here today,” she said.
“Thorn would be in heaven,” he said.
“She descended from Mississippians.”
“I can’t imagine anyone loving their cultural history more than her.”
“She is a good person. Maybe too good for the likes of you.”
“What about for you?”
Esme’s smile disappeared. “We were never meant to be.”
“Star-crossed lovers?” he said, squeezing her hand.
“We must live in the moment. I have you now, at least for a short time, and there are many things I need to tell you.”
They strolled through the open-air market, marveling at the crafts. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, only a flock of gulls circling to land on a pond created by a bend in the river.
“It’s time to enter the palisade,” she said.
“I understand every word these people are saying. They can’t be speaking English.”
“You left your clothes and many other things in Oklahoma. While you are here, you are one of us.”
The high-timbered palisade surrounding the enclave was more spectacular than Thorn had described. A moat filled with water surrounded the tall timbers. Guards armed with spears left little doubt that no one entered except by invitation. He and Esme were on the list. They followed a circular maze until it opened into the ancient gated city of Spiro. The panorama blew him away.
“I visited the Archaeological Park yesterday. I had no idea it looked as spectacular as this.”
“The new world’s version of Camelot,” she said. “The game is starting. Would you like to see?”
In the distance, hundreds of spectators occupied a large arena where two teams were beginning to compete.
“It’s a half-mile away. It’ll be lunch before we get there,” he said.
“We don’t have to walk,” she said, snapping her fingers.
Four men appeared with a hand carriage, waiting until Esme and Buck had climbed aboard. Hoisting it to their shoulders, they began trekking toward the chunkey game. The rampant noise grew louder as they approached the arena, covered seating awaiting them. Play stopped as the players, and the crowd acknowledged Esme’s appearance.
“They treat you like a goddess,” Buck said.
She wasn’t smiling when she said, “To my people, I am a goddess.”
Forty people occupied covered seating opposite them. A man in bright paint sat in a cane throne decorated with wreaths of flowers and feathers. The throne rose high above everyone else in the box.
“He must be a bigwig,” he said.
“Walking Wolf is chief of the Mississippians. He’s without a doubt the most powerful person in North America.”
Walking Wolf’s throne was quite a distance away for a good look. Still, the regal old man seemed strangely familiar to Buck.
Buck had attended many sporting events, both amateur and professional. He’d never seen one quite as loud and raucous as the chunkey match.
Eight contestants and a referee, surrounded by several thousand adoring fans, occupied the football-sized field. Dressed in breechcloths, the competitors had faces painted white with black eyes like raccoons. Both teams wore pillbox hats woven of straw. One of the men stood at least six-six and towered over the others.
“That’s Talako,” Esme said. “He’s the captain of our team. We have never lost a game.”
“Impressive,” he said. “Who are they playing?”
“A team from a large Mississippian settlement called Cahokia. They have also never lost.”
“One of their dudes is almost as big as Talako,” Buck said. “How is the game played?”
“With short spears and a stone roller chiseled from quartz. Talako and the big man from the other team are the spears. They do all the throwing and most of the scoring. Each team has a disc roller and two team members called fronts that run interference. Only the disk rollers can touch the disk, and only the spears can throw them. The fronts use their spears for tripping and preventing the disk from going through the goal posts. That’s five points. You’ll get the gist once they start playing.”
One of the Cahokians had a six-inch stone disk with a hole in the middle. Taking a stance like a pro bowler, he rolled it toward the opposite goal. The referee waited until the disk had traveled about twenty feet and then waved his hand. Talako and the big man from the Cahokia team launched their spears. When the disk came to a halt, a ref ran onto the field, picked up the closest spear to the disk and held up a finger.
“One point,” Esme said. “The first team to reach twelve points wins.”
“What’s the significance of the hole in the disk?” Buck asked.
“If a spear penetrates the hole, then the game is over. The team that makes the toss is the winner.”
“Seems unlikely for that to happen.”
“Almost never,” she said.
When the ref waved his hand again, eight men ran toward the disk. The melee that followed resembled hand-to-hand combat. Both teams pushed and shoved, the fronts doing their best to break their opponent’s legs. A Cahokian retrieved the disk and launched it toward the goal. The scrum continued, both teams fighting for position and scoring a few points. The crowd had grown inflamed.
“There’s massive betting going on in the stands,” she said. “Much property will change hands because of this match.”
“Most everyone’s rooting for our team,” Buck said.
“Not all. There’s a large contingent of Cahokians here to watch the game.”
Talako’s spear landed within inches of the disk, the crowd standing and yelling. When the ref waved his hand, the two Cahokian fronts took Talako’s legs out from under him. When they did, the big spear kicked him in the side.
“Damn! That looked like a foul to me. Those boys are serious. They don’t have a penalty box in this game?”
“Chunkey emulates combat. Bones are often broken. The crowd expects the team to play through their pain.”
“Brutal. Sort of like pro football. How long till the ref calls a break?”
Esme shook her head. “They’ll battle until they drop, or the game is over. There are no quarters.”
“And the reward?” he asked.
“Life, the losers killed and their scalps displayed on the winner’s belts.”
“You gotta be kidding me,” he said.
“If the visiting team wins, our chief will pardon them because this is a religious holiday. If our team loses, they will lose their heads.”
“Doesn’t look like they’re in any danger of that. They’re ahead by six points.”
“I pray not,” Esme said. “Talako is Walking Wolf’s only grandson, and the greatest warrior our tribe has.”
“Your chief wouldn’t allow his own flesh and blood to have his head chopped off.”
“Not only allow it, he would proclaim it so. He would have no choice,” she said.
“You seem distressed. You okay?”
“These games always frighten me.”
“You want to leave?”
“I can’t,” she said.
“Something you aren’t telling me?”
“Walking Wolf and I are time walkers, inherited only when both parents are also walkers. The only other walker in the tribe is Talako.”
Buck stared at her anxious expression, trying to decipher what she had just told him.
“So you and Talako are . . . ?”
“Betrothed,” she said. “We must marry and have a child.”
She squeezed his hand, her eyes begging for understanding.
“I had hoped we were going to do more than just hold hands tonight.”
“I am so sorry. That is not possible,” she said.
“Do you love him?”
“As much as I love you.”
“Then I guess it’s okay,” he said.
When they returned their attention to the game, they saw that the Spiro team had drawn within a point of winning. The Cahokian roller gave the disk a great heave, the crowd waiting until the referee waved his hand. As he did, Talako and the big Cahokian launched their spears. The disk hit a bump and fell on its side as Talako’s spear sailed over it.
When the Cahokian’s spear began its descent, every spectator in the arena sensed what was about to happen. As the missile landed in the hole in the disk, the crowd grew deathly silent. The chief came down from his cane throne, motioning Talako to approach him. Esme’s face turned bright red as she squeezed Buck’s hand.
“I can’t believe this,” he said.
“If he can break Talako’s spear, then it is a sign that the Great Spirit wishes him to die. Walking Wolf will have to take his head.”
Buck stood. “I’ll stop it,” he said.
Esme pulled him back into his seat. “No. If the spear breaks, then it is ordained.”
Talako’s head hung low as he knelt in front of his grandfather and handed him his spear. Removing a serrated stone dagger from his ceremonial belt, Walking Wolfe drove it into the earth. Then he raised the spear over his head and did a slow turn so that everyone in the stands could see.
Esme let go of Buck’s hand, her tears flowing and the veins in her neck bulging. She clenched her hands, almost as if she also had hold of the spear.
Though smaller than his grandson, Walking Wolf looked anything except weak. Buck could see he was preparing to break the spear and had little doubt that he could complete the task. As the rapt crowd watched in silence, his muscles strained, his face turning red. Buck and everyone else expected the spear to snap at any second.
Despite his efforts, the spear never even bowed. Finally, the anger imprinted on his face disappeared, replaced with a smile. He turned again to the crowd.
“This spear is unbreakable. Would anyone care to try?” He walked around the arena, offering it to anybody that might accept it. No one did, not even the contingency from Cahokia. “Then the Great Spirit has spoken,” he said. “I deem this contest a draw.”
Cheers erupted from the crowd as Chief Walking Wolf returned the spear to Talako. Buck glanced at Esme, her hands still clenched and tears streaming down her face. He took her hands and uncoiled her fingers. Two deep red welts occupied her palms. He began massaging them.
“You saved him, didn’t you?” he said.
Her breathing labored, she answered. “It took every ounce of power I have. I couldn’t let him die.”
People began filing out of the arena as Esme regained her composure.
“What now?” he asked.