Monday, December 24, 2007

Sacred Ground by Rita Karnopp


BY Rita Karnopp


Release date: Nov. 7, 2007 Eternal Press

Chapter One


eep your damn buffalo on your side of the fence," Brett Turner shouted.

Willow Howling Moon watched the most irritating man she knew stand in the stirrups and stare down the fence line, his glare unmistakably fueled by his anger. If she could get past his arrogance and narrow-mindedness, she might admit he bordered on handsome, with that curly wheat-colored hair edging his collar beneath a worn Stetson hat. Ranch work rendered him lean and muscular and in better shape than most men who worked out.

"My damn buffalo haven't crossed onto your property since 1890! As usual, your mouth is speaking before you've had a chance to think, if you think at all," she snapped, gritting her teeth.

"You think twenty head of my prized cows died from brucellosis without one or more of your ancient beasts giving it to them?" He wiped his brow on the back of his leather glove.

The gesture didn't fit the spoiled, rich-boy image she had of him. Uncomfortable under his steady gaze, she swung into the saddle. This cowboy had a way of unraveling her nerves. She raised her chin and stiffened her back.

"My buffalo have been tested for brucellosis," she informed him, looking directly into baby blue eyes flanked by too-long dark lashes. They gave him a look of innocence she knew didn't exist. "Your sickly cattle didn't die from any buffalo of mine." She gave his herd a glaring once-over. "Find someone else to blame for your misfortunes." She reined her mount away from the barbed fence, then into a slow trot away from Brett Turner.

"I catch one of those ugly horned beasts on my property, and I'll shoot it!" Brett shouted.

"You'd better think long and hard about firing a gun at my stock." She reined and turned in the saddle to face him. "You can't afford to spend any time in jail now, can you?" Noticing his clenched jaw, Willow Howling Moon paused. She caught a glimpse of a faraway gaze, an almost sad expression, before he quickly covered it with a look of defiance.

"Keep them on your side of the fence and you won't have to worry about it. I suggest you keep that wild kid of yours on your property, too!" A smug smile tipped the corners of his mouth.

She brought her horse to a complete turnaround and raced back toward him, moving as one with her mount. Her hair had escaped from the leather tie and flew behind her like the mane of her horse. She didn’t care how it looked at this point. She glared at him. If he had any smarts he'd read the fury and back down.

"Listen, Brett, I can take your accusations and insults with a grain. But, I won't tolerate them when it comes to my son. Lance hasn't been on your property―"

"Since 1890? I've heard that one," Brett interrupted. "I thought I'd remind you, again. I don't like Sean associating with any―"

"Indians?" she spewed the word out with an inflection of disgust. "I know how you feel about Indians. Bear in mind, I don't have control over your son. He comes over to play, and I'm not about to make him feel unwanted. He's welcome, it's more than I can say for you."

Lifting the reins, she moved her mount closer. "Sean doesn't seem to notice Lance is Indian. Prejudice is a learned behavior. I'm sure, given time, you'll have him hating us, too."

"I don't hate you, Willow, but I do hate drunken Indians as a whole. Always have their hands out, expecting to be paid for the injustices done their ancestors. Hell, we've all had life kick us in the ass. We all could be waiting for a handout. You have this great ranch, and you're still out there fighting for Native American rights. Makes me sick."

Willow took a deep breath. "You’re so narrow-minded, you wouldn't know the right and wrongs of it if I spent hours explaining. I don't expect you to change nor to understand. You have no idea what we face today."

"They face large handouts and do squat with the money."

"Shows how much you know," she snapped. "The average Indian lives in poverty. The reservations are nothing but a place to hide from the rest of society. Many are still waiting for forgotten promises."

"They should close those damn reservations and make the Indians mix with society. This Indian revival thing is crazy. Learning the language of their ancestors . . . how stupid. Who are they going to talk to?" Brett snickered.

"Somewhere in that ignorant persona you must feel a certain respect for other cultures. Native Americans were forced to forget their belief in Napi, the Great Spirit. They were forced to speak English and punished if they spoke their native language. They weren’t allowed to dress or practice the old ways. Their code of ethics would put today’s society to shame." She wondered why she bothered explaining anything to this man.

"Native Americans should be a thing of the past, like Vikings and knights in shining armor. Indians have to learn to blend with society. You're wasting your time trying to convince me otherwise. Nothing would, or could, change my mind." Brett adjusted his hat. "And I repeat; I don't want Sean playing at your place. Indians don't supervise their kids. They just let them run wild."

"That's a crock and you know it!" Willow exploded. "We don't raise our children any different from the typical American. Where do you get these warped ideas?" She shook her head in disgust. "Sean’s a nice kid. He and Lance love feeding the ponies and―"

"I don't want him at your place," Brett interrupted. "It's as simple as that! Nine-year-olds don't think about consequences. If Sean gets hurt, I'm holding you personally responsible."

"It's surprising he doesn't have that spoiled little rich kid syndrome like his father."

"You may have a cute little ass and a face that puts most women to shame, but once you open your mouth, a man forgets all the rest. I don't want Sean playing with Lance. That's all there is to say. Remember it!" He whirled his chestnut around and pushed the animal into a hard, full run away from her.

Willow couldn't remember them ever talking without arguing. It always ended with one or the other running in the opposite direction.

Amidst her anger, his comment about her cute behind and a face that put most women to shame came to mind. Did he really think that? She refused to allow his semi-compliment to soften her anger . . . she told herself, even though it already had.

* * *

Damn, that woman got his blood pumping, and he’d pushed his horse harder than he intended. Brett brought the animal to a halt on top of the ridge and led him around to face the backside of his property.

Willow rode across the plush green meadow, then crossed the trickling Dog Creek. As

always, the sparkling water angered him. He gritted his teeth and drew in a deep breath. A lack of water had always been his major concern. Damn his great-grandfather. What could have possessed him to buy land without obtaining water rights? Plain stupid!

Endless times Brett wanted to put Willow Howling Moon Jenkins in her place. If she ever decided to reroute the water and bypass his property, he'd lose everything, plain and simple. The entire situation graveled him. Whenever he allowed himself to think about it, which wasn't often, his blood pressure skyrocketed. To be controlled by a woman, an Indian woman on top of it, wore on his pride.

Now, as he watched her, he couldn't help feel a stirring. When she rode that prized pinto, she was beauty in motion. He hadn't missed how her full breasts moved seductively beneath her beaded Indian shirt. She always wore her long shiny black hair pulled back at the nape of her neck, secured with a single beaded and feathered leather tie. When her hair worked loose and flowed around her, primitive and free, it excited him. Her shapely bottom bounced sexily in the saddle. She posed an impressive looking woman for an Indian.

He couldn't stand Willow Howling Moon Jenkins, yet something about her intrigued him, pulled him toward her. God, he hated what the Indians had become, yet she radiated a vitality that drew her to him like a magnet. Damn! He wouldn't allow himself to think about her.

Brett gently nudged the belly of his chestnut and headed for home. His anger had settled, not as quickly as it had erupted, but that was something he'd always worked hard to control. Willow pushed all the wrong buttons, making him forget to hold back. His comments had been cruel, and he wasn't proud of himself. Honest but not proud. The hurt look in her eyes told him he wasn't being fair or considerate. Insensitive might be the right word.

If only he could believe she had nothing to do with his recent streak of bad luck. If only . . .

* * *

"If only that man didn't get me so damn riled," Willow Howling Moon said under her breath. The sound of pounding horse's hooves drew her attention across the valley. She watched her son race toward her. He waved, and she returned the gesture. Lying low on Spirit Dancer's back for greater speed, he passed by her in a cloud of dust, giving a shrill whoop. He would have made a fine warrior, she thought, smiling at him proudly.

"A-pe-ech-eken," he shouted at her.

"Why?” she asked, pleased he'd chosen to speak Blackfoot. She'd struggled to instill pride in his heritage. His looking more like his white father than Indian didn't help with her goal. He loved the horses and the tribal dancing, and she used those interests to encourage him to learn others he didn't find as important. "I'd planned a leisurely ride home. Give me a good reason to hurry and I'll consider it."

"Thunder's having her calf!"

"You're kidding! That's certainly good enough reason for me," she shouted over her shoulder. Willow tapped Whirlwind's side and let the horse have her head. With a skill born of instinct and years of experience, she picked their way among the trees and rocks, finding the trail without effort. They returned to the ranch in half the time that it took to leave.

Her feet touched the ground before Whirlwind came to a complete stop. Glancing around at the darkening spring sky, and drawing in a moisture-laden breeze, Willow rushed to open the barn doors.

"Help me get Thunder inside," she told Lance. "She won't like it, but I don't want her and her baby getting soaked tonight." Willow tapped Thunder's backside gently with a willow stick.

"She's not gonna make it inside, look she’s dropping that calf right now," Lance said, excitement in his voice. "Would you look at that, Mom? Thought you said she's gonna have trouble."

"It's not over. Step back and let her do what comes naturally. We'll help if she needs―"

"Mom! The hind feet are coming first! The calf is backwards!"

"Easy girl," Willow coaxed Thunder to the ground. She watched the calf's feet slide back into the large animal. "You'd better go call the vet. His number is under the buffalo magnet on the fridge." She soothed Thunder's stomach with large, circular rubs.

Lance ran toward the house, filling her with pride. He took responsibility seriously, a trait not often found in boys his age these days.

"Take it easy, Thunder. You're giving birth to the first buffalo calf on the Arrowhead Ranch, just like my father wanted. Don't let me down, girl."

"Doc Tanner said he'd be here in about an hour," Lance said between breaths. "I told him he needs to come now. He's at the Tumbling T."

"I don't think Thunder will wait an hour. Did you tell Grandpa Antelope Tipi?"

"He's getting some of his potions."

"You go help Grandpa; I'll stay here with Thunder. Remind him to bring the Bowie hunting knife. and have Grandma Sings Always boil some water."

"She’s making Dutch apple pie, and it smells great. She said we'll celebrate with it."

"I'm hungry already. Go now and help Grandpa," she instructed. "Oh, Lance, bring some rags and old towels from the basement closet."

With concern she watched the huge shaggy animal and thought about what this calf meant to her People. She was glad her husband wasn't here to voice his usual opposition where the buffalo were concerned. She couldn't help feeling a shimmer of guilt at being glad.

As a young girl, she'd always dreamed of marrying for love. But her father described a different destiny. She quickly realized her dream would never be reality. She’d been chosen to protect the sacred, ancient burial grounds of her People, which spread across the backside of Gordon's land. Taking her responsibilities seriously, she married him. It had been the first step, of many, her father had envisioned in regaining the land of their ancestors. Soon step two would be fulfilled with the birth of this buffalo calf, born to the People.

She'd done her duty, but she'd also paid the price. Where Gordon could have been gentle, he'd been violent. Where he could have been bonding, he chose conflict. When he could have been a loving father, he found ways to push his son away.

Although Gordon's death seemed poetic justice, she found herself haunted with guilt. Surely no man deserved to have his body torn apart by wild dogs. She should have felt a loss by his absence the past six months. She should have mourned his passing, but she didn't.

"We're back." Lance ran up to her, breathless.

Willow jumped, startled from her reverie. Her son had an air of excitement about him. "I'm glad. Thunder missed you."

She nodded to her father, but remained silent. Although a large man, her father possessed great gentleness. He wore a necklace of many colored beads, representing the rainbow, which endowed him with supernatural power and wisdom. He held his head erect, proud. His long black-and- gray-streaked hair fell loosely upon his shoulders, framing an aged face. His dark penetrating eyes hinted at hidden secrets and knowledge of the old ones, guarded and preserved.

He sat on a blanket more ancient than he. With care and experience, he rolled, between his thumb and index finger several pieces of dried sweet grass, the sacred grass of the People. He chanted, soft and steady, calling out with throaty tones to the sky and earth.

"What is Grandfather doing?" Lance whispered, as her father raised the smoking grass.

"He's showing respect, first above to the Creator, then down to Mother Earth. He'll now do the same to the Spirits of the Directions. Tell me, Lance, what are they?" she asked, continuing her soothing rubs to Thunder's stomach.

"Grandfather will start by facing east. See, I'm right." Lance sat back on his heels. "It's the source of light and understanding."

Willow noticed the look of satisfaction on the face of her young son. "Now he's facing south. Watch how sincere his movements are."

"South is the direction of youth, where all things are made to grow. It's my favorite direction," Lance said, excitement building in his tone. "I suppose west is your favorite." A teasing look washed over his once serious expression.

"Right." Willow made a face at him. "The direction of old age. Just remember, it symbolizes wisdom of the elders."

"If Grandfather doesn't hurry, the direction of north is going to get him wet," Lance said, giggling into his palm.

"I agree That storm's almost here." Willow wiped several wet droplets from her face.

Silence settled between them as they watched Grandfather Antelope Tipi direct the smoke to float across the suffering animal. Willow felt Thunder relax beneath her palm. Her father had a gift, an ancient gift . . . the power of healing. Some people laughed at his old ways, but she never did.

"How come Doctor Potter isn't here yet?" Lance asked, moving to sit next to his grandfather.

"Good question." Willow responded in a hushed tone.

Her father spread a white paste across Thunder's tongue.

"If Mr. Turner knows we need Doc's help for delivering a buffalo calf, we might not see him for hours,” she spat. “You can be sure Mr. Turner wouldn't consider this an emergency."

"You're wrong, as usual," Brett returned her harsh tone with his own.

"What are you doing here?" She jumped to her feet.

"I'm here to help―"

"Like hell you are! You expect me to believe you drove over here to help me, an Indian woman, deliver a buffalo calf? Please! Give me some credit for brains."

"Doctor Potter had some heart arrhythmia while he was out at my place. He's going to be fine, just needs to take it easy for a couple of days. He's the reason it's taken someone so long to get here. He asked me to come and help with the calf. A suffering animal is what matters. Even if it’s a damn buffalo."

"What exactly do you think you can do, that I can't?" she asked, watching him struggle to suppress his anger under the appearance of indifference.

"I have some training in animal science." He leaned over Thunder. "She's acting pretty sluggish. You give her a sedative? That can be dangerous if you don't know what you're doing."

"Antelope Tipi gave her something to relax her.” Willow glanced at Brett and read concern in his expression.

"I'm supposed to trust some ancient mumbo jumbo?"

"Nope. I didn't ask you to. It's your choice to be here. Leave if you find it too much of a challenge." She fell silent and watched him press Thunder's stomach high, then low. He pulled on long plastic surgical gloves and inserted his hand into the birthing canal. "The calf is presenting itself breech. Both mother and calf are in danger. I'm going to try turning the calf. There's no time to waste. You'll have to help." He hurried to his truck.

Sean slammed the truck door and shuffled toward Lance.

"Hi, guy," she said with forced cheeriness. "You boys better stay at a distance and keep quiet. If things get . . . tense, and I tell you to go to the house, I expect you both to get tracking. Understand?" She looked at the twosome. They both nodded, moving back to sit with their backs against the barn door.

Several cold droplets reminded her of another potential problem. She couldn't think of that now. They’d take one thing at a time. If only Doctor Potter had come instead of Brett Turner. The crunch of gravel made her turn. Brett approached carrying a large black vet bag.

"What do you think you're doing, you're not a veterinarian?"

"You're right, but I'm the next best choice you have at this moment. I've finished all but my job experience hours under a licensed vet, to become one myself." He set out several instruments on a clean towel he'd spread on the ground.

"I didn't know that," she muttered. "But if you haven't had field experience yet, you really don't know what you're doing, do you? I mean, there's a big difference between reading something in a book and knowing what to do. What are those for?" she asked, observing the straight row of ominous looking knives, clamps and needles.

"A C-section. We need to be ready just in case," he answered, without looking at her.

"Are you sure you know what you're doing?" His glaring response caused her to fall silent. She had to admit having Brett help was better than no help at all. She didn’t want either animal to die. She swallowed what remained of her pride and asked, "What can I do to help?"

"Tell your father to pack up his feathers and rattles and get out of the way," he said, kneeling behind his patient.

"I guess it's impossible for you to stay civil for more than a few minutes. Why did I expect anything different?" she asked, between clenched teeth. "Thunder needs my father. He stays!"

"There's no time to argue, Willow. Pull on a pair of gloves and get down here."

While he pushed and pulled the calf inside Thunder, Willow snapped on long latex gloves.

Brent grunted slightly. "Whatever Antelope Tipi gave this animal, it's sure effective."

"How's it going?" she asked, dropping to her knees alongside Brett.

"Hold this position while I double check where the cord is," he directed.

She moved in closer. "I've got it," she said, struggling to keep her balance and remain motionless as he moved knowing hands around the birthing cavity. She became aware of his warm breath on the back of her neck.

"Be ready. When I say pull, I want you to give it all you've got," Brett said.

Willow glanced at him, confused by his sudden change in character. She'd never seen this side of Brett Turner. It made her feel more on-guard than his arguing did. She'd have to distract herself with conversation or her body might betray how his closeness affected her. "Why did you quit school? Too much work for a rich rancher's son?"

"Rich had nothing to do with it," he said, glancing her way. "Hand me that bottle and sponge. This will sterilize the birth opening some. My father was dead set against my becoming a vet. He hated it so much, he wouldn't give me a penny toward my schooling."

"Why would he be against something so worthwhile and what you wanted?" Willow sat back on her heels to give him more room to work. "How'd you pay for it all?" She drew in a breath of burning sweet grass, and her father's soft chants calmed her.

"I worked two jobs and studied in between. I'll admit it was difficult, but I did what I had to do. It was my dream." He reached his hand back into the laboring buffalo. "This is it, pull!"

Willow pulled on the struggling calf, guiding it through the opening of its mother's body. Brett grabbed her hand in an attempt to help lift the newborn. She glanced at him and paused, finding warm blue eyes staring back at her. Uneasiness washed over her. Once again she realized she didn't know this Brett Turner. She tore her gaze away and settled it on Lance and Sean.

"Boys, grab some towels and be ready to dry our newcomer," she shouted, while helping Brett bring the struggling calf into the world.

A silence fell over all of them.

"He is a sacred buffalo," Grandfather Antelope Tipi said in a quiet tone. "It is considered sacred and has been revered by Plains Indians for centuries. This is a sign."

"That's all superstition," Brett snapped, turning away from the old Indian.

Willow could tell Brett seemed impressed, even awed by the rare sight before him. She wondered why he tried so hard to hide it. The story of White Buffalo Woman, which had been told and retold through generations, prophesied she would return to the People in times of need. The birth of a female white buffalo is an important event.

"I've never seen a white buffalo," Lance said, his voice equally hushed as his grandfather’s. The boys moved in closer for a better look.

“It’s an albino, might be somewhat unusual, but many animals have albino births,” Brett offered.

“Not albino with black nose and black eyes,” Antelope Tipi pointed out. “The last time a white buffalo was born was nineteen-ninety-four, in a small town in Wisconsin.”

“That’s right, Father. That was on a small farm in Janesville, Heider farm, I think.”

"Wait 'till I tell the kids at school! Can we take him to show everyone?" Sean asked, crowding alongside Lance.

"We may have to consider having a school field trip here." Willow smiled at their eagerness and noticed Brett watching the calf with great interest, in spite of himself.

"Wow, Mom! He's beautiful," Lance said.

"Yeah, Mom . . . Willow. Can we dry him off?" Sean asked.

"You boys stay back," Brett ordered.

"Oh, let them wipe the baby off. It'll be something they'll always remember," she said.

They raised affirmative thumbs-up at each other. Willow wondered what Brett would say if he knew the 'x' scar on their thumbs meant they were true blood brothers. She smiled, liking it.

"Please, Dad?" Sean asked, his tone bordering on a whine.

"Okay. But stay clear. We're far from done here and I don't want you in the way," he answered, working on his patient.

Aware of his intensity and gentleness, she handed Brett a plastic bag, and he cleaned the area without hesitation. He did appear to know what he was doing. "Why didn't you finish what you needed to become a vet?"

"I had a ranch to run, a son to raise, and a mother to think about instead of myself." He looked concerned and moved his hand back into the laboring buffalo.

"Something’s wrong with Thunder, isn't it?" She inched closer for a better look.

"Not exactly. There's another calf." He pressed his hand in deeper.

"What? You've got to be kidding! Did you hear, boys? Thunder is going to have another calf. We're having twins! No wonder she was so big. Doc Potter never said a word." Glancing over at her father, Willow watched his rhythmic rattle and listened to his steady chants. Somehow she got the feeling he knew they weren't done before they did.

"Why isn't she loose with the other wild animals?" Brett grunted with an effort to pull.

Willow moved to stand beside him, ready to help. "You might say she's more of a pet than a wild animal. The boys have been playing with her for years. Now I'm grateful. Otherwise, this much human contact might have been a shock to her." She felt Brett’s body heat and found it unsettling.

"The boys shouldn't be anywhere near a buffalo, wild or not. They're unpredictable." He guided first the calf's head, then legs through the opening.

"If I'd felt the boys were in any danger, you can be sure I'd have taken action. Besides, the buffalo is looked upon as the animal given to our People by the Creator. The correct name is bison. In Blackfoot we say Enee, meaning bison."

Brett rolled his eyes upward, and she shook her head. She concentrated on her father's soft chanting and drew in the faint scent of the purifying sweet grass, comforted by his presence, in spite of Brett's negativity.

"Grab hold, this one doesn't seem to be struggling too much. He may need some immediate attention." Brett rubbed his sleeve across the sweat that rolled down his forehead.

Willow grabbed a strip of cloth and wiped off his brow without thinking. The gesture seemed personal . . . too personal. Uneasy, she pretended a need to check out the boys, feeling his stare for only a few seconds. She stood and gripped the newborn's slimy legs. Brett lifted and she pulled. With a minimal amount of effort, together they brought another buffalo calf into the world.

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