Great Plains, 1867
“Dakota, you must leave The People to travel to the home of your father’s father,” Grandfather said, waking Dakota before the mist of morning had lifted from Mother Earth.
Dakota sat up from his blankets. Confused he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Grandfather only used the white man’s language when he didn’t want the rest of The People to understand what he said to him. “I don’t understand, Grandfather. Aren’t we supposed to leave with The People into the mountains for the summer camp today?”
“Yes, we are leaving today, but your destiny lies to the south in the land of your father’s people.â€ The old man set about gathering Dakota’s belongingsâ€”a bow and quiver of arrows, his knife and medicine pouch. “The Great Spirit came to me in the night and showed me that your path is not that of The People.”
“Will you be coming with me?” Dakota asked, slipping on his moccasins and rolling up his blanket. He’d lived with Grandfather for six of his ten winters and loved the old man. He didn’t want to go to this other stranger without Grandfather at his side.
“No, Dakota, this is a trip you must make yourself,” Grandfather said, holding the flap to their home open. Outside stood the reddish brown stallion Dakota had been given for his own and named Flame.
“But where will I find the O’Keefe?” he asked, fear making him shake as he pulled the blanket roll over his head and arm through the strip of leather binding it. His arrow quiver and finally his bow followed suit. Grandfather handed him his hunting knife, the only thing he had from his father, and he slipped it into the sheath sewn into the calf of one moccasin boot.
Grandfather steadied the horse as Dakota mounted on one smooth motion. “The Great Spirit showed me a small table out on the plains in the land known as Tejas. It is a town called Little Mesa.”
“Will I see you again, Grandfather?” He fought hard not to let the tears fill his eyes. He was a warrior and it wouldn’t do to let another warrior see his sorrow or his fear.
“We will meet again when the Great Spirit brings us together.” Grandfather reached up and gripped him tightly on his thigh. “Beware of O’Keefe, Dakota.”
“Why? I donâ€™t understand. If my destiny lies with him, why should I not trust him?”
“Your father was a good man. Your mother, my daughter, would not have given him her heart if he wasn’t. But he didn’t trust his father. That is why he brought you to live with me when he was dying. The Great Spirit has told me your destiny lies near this man, but your path to peace and happiness will not be an easy one. Watch for a giant and a boy of great honor.”
With that, Grandfather smacked Flame’s haunches, sending Dakota on his way out of the camp. Dakota held tight to Flame’s mane with one hand, but turned to watch his Grandfather and the camp behind him, until the mist swallowed them.
Weeks later Dakota rode up to the little shack miles west of Little Mesa. Finding the town hadn’t been difficult. Getting someone to talk to him and tell him where O’Keefe lived had. No one in this strange world wanted to help a “half-breed”, as they called him.
Their angry words and obvious hatred of him hurt and saddened him. The Great Spirit wanted him to live among these people? Why? How could his destiny be so cruel?
He slid off Flame and led him over to a grassy spot beneath a gnarly mesquite tree to graze. Using the leather band binding his bedroll, he secured his bow and quiver and medicine pouch to it and tied it all around Flame’s neck.
Quietly, he approached the half fallen-in building.
Surely the blacksmith in town had been wrong. No one could possibly live in this place. A good wind would knock it over and bury anyone inside.
Just as he reached to push open the door he heard a sound. He paused and drew the knife from the sheath in his moccasin boot.
The sound came again.
Snoring. Long and loud.
He pushed open the door and peered inside, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness.
In the center of the room sat a table littered with jugs and a plate where two rats sat nibbling at the contents. They paused as he shifted and more afternoon sunlight streamed inside. Deciding he wasn’t a threat, they resumed their meal.
Behind the table lay a bed with the large body of a man on it. The loud snoring came from that direction.
Seeing nothing to interest him inside the hovel, not even curiosity about the man to whom his destiny was connected, Dakota stepped back and let the door close quietly. The warm spring breeze cleared his senses.
This was where The Great Spirit wanted him to live? Grandfather had to be confused. His destiny couldn’t be tied to this horrible place.
He wandered around to the lean-to he’d seen at the back of the shack. Standing inside, nearly knee-deep in damp straw and horse-shit, was a pale gray horse. His ears perked and he whinnied at the sight of Dakota. He shied away from his approach-a nervous look in his eyes.
“Easy friend. I mean you no harm.” Dakota used his gentlest voice and cautiously approached the animal.
The frightened horse scratched at the ground, pulling its head at the bridle keeping it tethered in place.
Dakota stopped an arm’s length away, softly crooning in the pattern Grandfather had taught him to handle hurt or frightened animals.
Slowly the fear receded from the horse’s eyes and his nostrils stopped flaring.
“I mean you no harm, friend,” Dakota repeated, inching closer, letting him grow accustomed to his scent. As he talked, he looked down the animal’s legs, not surprised to see a festering sore on his hind leg. “I know that hurts. Would you let me see it?”
The horse’s breathing had returned to normal.
Dakota gently laid a hand on his side, slowly moving it back and down to the swollen, tender spot. It wasn’t draining green or smelling putrid. Perhaps he could heal it. First, he had to get him out of this filthy shed.
Untying the leather reins from the railing, he led the horse slowly, so not to put any pressure on his swollen leg, out of the shed and around to where Flame stood calmly nibbling grass. He tied the gray to the tree, then went in search of water, grabbing an over-turned bucket as he went. He followed the sound of a creek over the small hill behind the shed.
Standing on the hill he could see as far as the eagle could fly in a day. A good portion of it was covered with hundreds of cattle milling about. Beyond them stood a barn and a fenced-in area. Several men rode horses slowly from the fence out to the cattle. To the side stood several more buildings. Everything looked well tended-not like O’Keefe’s home.
He turned his attention to collecting water from the stream and moss and mud from the creek bank.
When he returned to the horses, he soaked a cloth in the water, then set the bucket near the gray, who greedily slurped at the water.
When was the last time the animal had food or water? O’Keefe might not care for his home, but to mistreat an animal was wrong.
Fighting back his anger at the abuse, Dakota squatted beside the injured leg and began cleaning the muck away as gently as he could, all the time crooning softly to the horse. Once he had it cleaned, he made a poultice of the moss and mud, covering the area thickly with the mixture. Finally, he took another cloth from his medicine pouch and wrapped the leg. Content with his work, he led both animals back over the hill so they could drink their fill from the creek.
Again, his attention was drawn to the ranch beyond.
A boy, about his own age, dismounted near the barn just as a very tall man exited it. Could this be the giant and the boy Grandfather had spoken of?
They walked to the house where a small woman greeted them both. He was too far away to see more than their shapes and sizes. What kind of people were they? Were they like the other white men heâ€™d met in the town? Would they hate a half-breed?
Flame snorted beside him-a signal he was done drinking.
“Are you in that much of a hurry to return to the shack, my friend?”
Flame snorted and shook his head.
Dakota laughed and stroked the horse’s side. They had been together since the day the colt had foaled. He was the closest friend he’d had besides Grandfather. Taking the gray’s reins, he lead the pair back down the hill.
He’d just tied O’Keefe’s horse to the mesquite again when he heard the door to the shack open.
“Hey! What ‘cha doin with my horse, you heathen?” O’Keefe slurred behind him.
Dakota turned to see the round, red-nosed man with long white hair and a scraggly beard standing in the doorway.
“I fed and watered him and cleaned his injured leg.”
“And who do you think you are coming on my property bothering my animal?” The old man stepped out carrying a sword.
Dakota backed away from the gray.
“I’m Dakota O’Keefe, son of your son, Liam.”
“He’s no son of mine! Disowned that bastard for taking up with that bitch squaw.”
Dakota recognized the slur in the name the man called his mother and the hatred the man had for his own son. Anger surged through him.
“Liam was a good father and he loved my mother,” he said stalking toward the man, “I am your grandson.”
“You’re an abomination! No heathen, even a half-breed will be kin to me.” O’Keefe raised the sword and before Dakota could back off he slammed the hilt down on his head.
Blackness swallowed him up, then pain shot through his head as his vision cleared, glittering stars filtering through the evening sun. He saw O’Keefe standing over him.
“I won’t have some horse thief on my land,” he said swinging the sword downward.
Dakota rolled to the right, the blade catching his back shoulder. Still dazed, and fire spreading through his body from the pain, he tried to stumble to his feet.
“An abomination, I tell you!”
O’Keefe swung again. The blade slashed down the left side of Dakota’s back, flipping him sideways. Fighting to breathe, he tried to scramble backward as the old man raised his arm to slash at him again.
His hand connected with a rock.
“I’ll kill you, devil’s spawn!” O’Keefe yelled, his arm arcing downward.
Through his blurred vision, Dakota hurled the rock at what he hoped was O’Keefe’s head, at the same time kicking out with his feet.
Just as the blade sliced across his stomach he had the satisfaction of seeing O’Keefe hit the ground beside him.
Dakota woke to Flame nuzzling his face.
The sun had set.
He looked to his left where O’Keefe had landed. No sign of the devil.
He needed to get away.
To the ranch below the creek.
Watch for a Giant and a boy of great honor.
Grandfather’s words spurred him to move. Fighting the pain, he grabbed Flame’s mane. The stallion lowered enough for Dakota to slide onto its back. He hugged tightly to the horse’s neck, heading it up the hill.
He regretted leaving the gray to the cruelty of O’Keefe, but he had to save himself first.
After an agonizing and slow trip over the hill, across the creek and down through the herd of milling cows, Flame brought him to the house.
He knew he’d lost too much blood to try and stand. He could feel it coating Flame’s back.
“Forward,” he commanded.
Flame stepped onto the wooden porch with his front hooves and nudged at the closed door.
Dakota held onto his neck with all the strength he had left.
The door swung open.
“What the hell?” the boy with curls the color of the plains grass in winter said. He steadied Flame’s head, then yelled behind him, “Cap! Juanita! Come quick!”
“Quinn, what’d we talk about swearing in the house? Sweet Jesus,” the man said from behind him. So tall he had to stoop to get out the door, he held Flame’s head and eased him back from the door and off the porch.
“What happened to you, son?” the man asked, trying to pry his fingers loose from Flame’s mane.
“O’Keefe,” was all Dakota could manage.
“That old bastard,” the giant muttered.
“Madra de Dios!” the woman, half the size of the man, came around and stroked her soft hands across Dakota’s face. “We must get him inside, Anson.”
“I see that, my love. You go pull down the covers to Quinn’s bed while I get the lad. Quinn, we’ll be needing some fresh water from the creek.”
“Yes, sir, Cap.” The boy named Quinn said, grabbing a bucket off the porch.
“Then you’ll need to see to the lad’s horse.”
“Flame,” Dakota whispered.
“Is that his name?” Quinn asked.
“I’ll take good care of him.” And Dakota knew he would and loosened his grip.
The Giant called Cap, pulled him gently off Flame’s back, cradling him in his arms. “You’re all right, son. We’ve got you now.”