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Something moved among the Douglas firs where the forest sloped upward toward burnished rock.
The short hairs at the nape of Sigri’s neck prickled with the sense of being watched.
Outwardly undisturbed, she went about the business of pitching camp on the open plateau. No staring toward the trees or up where rocky crevices concealed, she knew, a narrow cave. No pausing to listen for movement. Just aware, as always, of every detail of her surroundings.
Copperlode grazed serenely on patches of autumn-browned grass between the gone-to-seed wildflowers, lupine and columbine and monkeyflower. She raised her chestnut head from time to time to cock an ear toward the forest, but without alarm. Sigri pretended not to notice. No grizzly, for sure. Even without the light breeze from that direction the horse would have been aware of danger.
When the mountain tent was firmly anchored and a small fire begun in the circle of blackened stones, Sigri went to lean her close-cropped head against Copperlode’s glossy neck. She murmured a few words, stroking the soft muzzle, until the mare’s head twitched and one ear pointed again toward the trees.
Sigri moved away at a tangent to the direction of the horse’s attention. When she reached the brushy edge of the woods she drew her knife and hacked away at deadwood. Her only apparent concern was gathering fuel for the fire, but tension built in her gut as she progressed slowly, casually, toward where someone waited; a tension that spread in ripples up and down her rangy body. Still she gave no sign of awareness, or of the tingling in her ass whenever her back was to the treeline.
Finally she dropped the armload of small branches, sheathed her knife, and stood stretching and rubbing her back. Stetson tilted against the sun’s glare, she gazed out over the plateau and beyond to the mountains and valleys of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.
Now. Any second. Now the attack would come.
She would come. Pi’tamaken. Running Eagle.
A whisper of sound....Sigri whirled to meet the onslaught, the thought flashing through her mind that twenty years ago Pita would have made no sound at all.
Arms raised, hands locked in each other’s bruising grip, they strained together, strength against strength. Pita tried to hook Sigri’s knee, but Sigri jerked a thigh hard into her opponent’s elkhide-clad crotch. When they fell together her Stetson was jolted loose but she managed to stay on top, her cropped yellow-white head leaning above the other’s bronzed face and tangle of long black hair.
Pita tried to twist away. Sigri’s head plunged suddenly toward her exposed throat, teeth nipping hard at the salty skin, counting coup according to their private ritual. The familiar taste sent a ripple of heat through her own throat and chest and beyond. Once she wouldn’t have hesitated to draw blood, but that had been long ago, and the world a different place. No knowing what might be in blood these days.
She raised her head. Pita glared up, eyes fierce in her angular face. Then she grinned. “Good one,” she conceded.
Sigri worked her thigh against the elkhide with less violence, or maybe just a different kind. Pita began to arch toward the pressure. The old, imperative ache hit Sigri’s cunt like summer lightning, but Pita lurched abruptly aside and then upward with a whoop of triumph, and suddenly Sigri was on the bottom, needles and twigs prickling into her back and ass. The scent of arousal mingled with the sharp tang of crushed fir seedlings. She could see in Pita’s face that the moment had passed.
“Heluva place you picked for bushwhacking,” Sigri said. “What were you gonna do if I didn’t come close enough and then kindly turn my back? Wait to scalp me in my sleep?”
Pita rolled off, leaving Sigri dangling between chill and heat. “Something like that. If the smell of coffee didn’t drag me out first. But you knew all along somebody was there. What made you think it was me?”
“What did you expect, ferchrissake? One, you only made about as much noise as a pair of bull elk in rut, whereas most folks would’ve trampled the place like a herd of bison. I nearly didn’t hear you. Two, that’s one of my own horses you’ve got stashed over behind those boulders.” They eyed each other warily as they stood up. No need to add that it was twenty-five years to the day since they’d first discovered this place, and the cave beyond. And twenty since the last time they’d met here. Promises had been made. Not counted on, maybe, in recent years—neither had gone so far as to remind the other—but here they were.
“Your pretty lady back at the ranch seemed to think you wouldn’t mind if I trailed you up here. Even outfitted me and trucked me in.” Pita eyed Sigri sidelong as they strode toward the campsite. “That’s some mighty appetizing armful you got back there.”
“Emmaline been giving out free samples?”
“Just coffee and pie good enough to keep any cowboy close to home. Doesn’t seem to have fattened you up much, though.” She tweaked Sigri’s lean rump. Sigri tweaked right back, harder, finding more to get a handle on. Running Eagle didn’t appear to have been doing quite as much running as she used to.
Still not that far past slender, though.
“Guess you’ll just have to put up with camp coffee for now.” Sigri ignored Pita’s unasked question as she added wood to the fire and set up the tripod for hanging the pot.
“So does she?” Pita persisted. “Keep you close to home?” The fact that the ranch was two hours of driving and three of trail riding away was irrelevant, and they both knew it.
“Emmaline’s got no worries, no matter where I go. Or who I do.” Sigri finished messing with the pot and sat down to wait for the coffee to boil. No need to mention that she’d had little enough inclination to wander these last few years. Sending Pita up here had been a generous gesture, and Sigri had no doubt that Emmaline had known just what she was about. Emmaline always did know.
Pita surveyed her closely for a moment, then nodded and went off to bring the hidden horse and gear to the campsite. When they sat side by side at last, devouring hot coffee and cold ham sandwiches, proximity and unresolved arousal went a long way toward restoring old bonds. But not all the way.
“Haven’t heard from you in a while,” Sigri commented. Two years since that last brief post card from Durango, down in Anasazi cliff-dweller territory. That had been about the time Emmaline moved in.
Sigri’d be damned, though, if she’d let on that she’d kept count. “How’s it been going? Still irresistible to all those eager young archaeology grad students? I don’t imagine you have any problem keeping your bedroll warm out on those digs.”
“Nope. No problem at all. But damn, they get younger every year!”
“What’s the matter, Professor, you getting tired of teaching youngsters the same old games?”
“Most of ‘em you made up in the first place,” Pita said with a reminiscent smile. “That one about buttering the sweet corn always goes over real well, whether they’re convinced it’s a genuine ritual or not.”
“Nothing like getting an ear of corn nice and slippery the natural way,” Sigri agreed. Her boyish grin would never grow old, no matter how many lines time and weather etched on her face. “Sprinkling cornmeal on the belly and licking spirals through it was a good one, too. Can’t go wrong with corn when it comes to ritual material.” Her tone was light, but the way she remembered it, those things they’d done with and to each other all those years ago had always had a touch of true sacrament about them.
Well, maybe not always. “I’ll bet they appreciate the hell out of Little Big Horn, too,” she added.
“But I expect you’ve gone more high-tech by now, with silicone or whatever they’re using these days.”
Not that Sigri didn’t have her own fairly state-of-the-art mail-order equipment stashed in a handy drawer at home.
“Little Big Horn was always just for you,” Pita said gruffly. “You made him. “ She stared into the fire, which seemed brighter now that the sun had edged below the highest peak. “Like you made me.”
Sigri sensed the sudden change of mood and searched to find the kind of words that seemed to be called for.
“Always struck me that was pretty much a team effort,” she said, knowing it sounded lame. What was Pita looking for, after all this time? After all she could have had if she’d wanted to stick around for it?
But Pita seemed to have some words penned up that needed setting loose. “So how did it happen,” she mused, eyes fixed on the stick she was poking gently among the embers at the fire’s edge, “that I turned out to be the college professor, instead of you?”
She didn’t look much like an academic just then, dressed in traditional elkhide, black hair streaming wild, her strong dark face needing only a few streaks of war paint across the high cheekbones to strike terror into the hearts of intruding settlers. “I never had any use for books or history or any kind of learning until you dug up those old woman warrior stories and made me read them. Woman Chief of the Crow.
Running Eagle of my own Blackfeet tribe, who even took a wife. You gave me my true name.”
“As I recall, I had to tie you to a fence post to get you to hold still long enough to listen to me read ‘em out loud,” Sigri said. “I got tired of the both of us always picking fights just for an excuse to grab each other, not knowing what we were doing or who we really were.”
“Hah! You couldn’t have tied me to anything on your best day!” Pita retorted. “But you did know enough to look in books, and those hippy magazines later with all those Two-Spirit movement articles.”
“I had a little help from Miss Edmonds in the library behind the Post Office,” Sigri said. Just knowing that Miss Edmonds had understood what she needed and not been scandalized had helped her as much as any book. Not many, she knew, were so lucky, even these days.
“So now,” Pita said, as if she’d followed Sigri’s train of thought, “I’m the one who passes along the lore, with everything else I can dig up, literally, about the ancient history of my people.”
“And I’m the one tied to the land,” Sigri said. “These mountains and plains. And the horses. That’s all I need.”
“She goes with the deal,” Sigri acknowledged. “With the plains, and the ranch, and the horses. All part of the same thing.” She flipped the dregs from her coffee cup into the fire and was on her feet before their aromatic sizzling had subsided. “How about you?” she asked, stretching out a weathered hand. “Is Running Eagle still part of the mountains?”
Pita reached up to grip Sigri’s proffered hand. “I’m here,” she said simply, and yanked herself erect.
There was an instant when they leaned apart, balancing each other’s weight; and then both arms tightened and their bodies collided.
It was a hug to leave bruises, more like two grizzlies than lovers. There would be finger marks on backs and butts for days. Sigri bit along the side of Pita’s neck and stopped short of drawing blood this time only because her lips and tongue demanded their turn at feeling and tasting. Pita tore Sigri’s shirt open with her teeth and chewed at a muscular shoulder as though softening up the sinews before devouring them. The old need rose between them, demanding, raising gutteral sounds to rumble in their throats.
“Here?” Sigri gasped, “or up there?” jerking her head in approximately the direction of the rocky cave on the mountainside. Pita’s answer was a hand shifted from clutching at Sigri’s ass to thrusting against her denim-clad crotch. “Plenty to go around,” she muttered, ducking her head against Sigri’s tingling chest so she could see to unzip the jeans and get her fingers where they’d do the most good. Sigri got her hand inside the elkhide trousers almost as soon.
It was all powerful thrusts and surging responses, heat and wetness and more, more, harder, faster, until tensions building for years found sudden, sharp release, as near to simultaneous as made no difference.
“God damn!” Sigri panted, when she could speak again. “We’ve still got it!”
“That’s just for openers,” Pita said, struggling to control her breathing. “I’ll meet you up there.” She knelt to dig in her pack, then moved off across the plateau, slowly at first, accelerating into a smooth lope that took her swiftly into the forest.
When Pita’s lithe form had melted into the trees, Sigri turned away to bank the fire and check on the horses, then followed at her own striding pace.
The trail, such as it was, ran along beside a narrow stream. Sigri was glad to find no signs that any creatures besides wild ones had been this way in recent years, except for Pita, who, at this moment, was as good as wild.
The last stretch was steep. Sigri paused to try to catch her breath where the trees ended abruptly at the rocky outcropping. Anticipation had as much to do with it as exertion.
There were easy hand- and footholds in the stone at first, but higher up it would have been slow going for anyone who hadn’t been this way before. Sigri pressed her body close against a vertical rock-edge barring the way and swung one long leg over to the unseen side. Her foot found the knob she knew was there, her hand reached out to find the slanting finger crack high above; and then she was all the way around, leaping from her tenuous hold into the narrow, gravel-floored entrance of the cave.
Sigri’s eyes adjusted to the relative dusk inside. There had been a time when Pita might have lunged at her at this point, but their games had moved on to something more like ritual, and the place had taken on a touch of something close to sacred.
She almost wished Pita would lunge. But there she was, several yards inside, waiting as motionless as the stone pressing into her back; and as naked, except for a soft deerskin pouch on a thong around her neck. She had built a small fire with wood gathered along the way, and, though it gave off only a little heat, Sigri felt no chill when she, too, left her clothes at the entrance.
She stopped just inside for a moment to duck her head toward four small dark splotches on the cave wall. Painted handprints, left hundreds of years ago. Had they been messages, or simple affirmations of someone’s presence? Or existence? Twenty-five years ago two girls in need of affirmation of their own identities had drawn wishful conclusions. The prints were small enough, after all, to have been made by women. So they had left marks of their own to puzzle explorers hundreds of years in the future, deeper marks, laboring at them each time they returned.
Sigri moved on in, gripped by the increasing urgency of the present. Pita stood silently, pressed against the rock wall, arms at an angle from her sides, legs slightly spread. Only her black eyes moved, burning into Sigri’s pale blue ones. Stifling the urge to lunge herself, Sigri fell into the remembered ritual, lifting the deerskin pouch gently from Pita’s chest and drawing out of it a stick of compressed charcoal wrapped in corn husks.
“Pi’tamaken,” she murmured huskily. “Running Eagle.” The roughness of the husks raised a flush on Pita’s bronzed skin as Sigri rolled the still-wrapped cylinder along her collarbones and across her breasts, forcefully enough to scrape against dark, hardened nipples. Then down the curve of her belly, and lower, pausing to thrust a few times between her thighs until wet streaks darkened the pale, dry husks.
Pita stood outwardly unmoved, but a pulse throbbed in her throat and the beating of her heart disturbed the smooth skin of her chest. The tender flesh of Sigri’s own cunt and clit swelled and moistened, and she knew that Pita’s body mirrored that reaction. The mingling of their musky scents was intensified by the drifting smoke of cedar and sage.
Sigri lifted the cornhusk packet and tore away the covering with strong teeth. Pita’s taste clung to her lips and tongue. When enough of the black stick was unwrapped, she splayed her left hand across Pita’s belly and traced around it, leaving a five-fingered mark on her flesh. Then she drew a line down one side of Pita’s crotch until she hit the rock wall. Sigri could feel, without seeing, the shallow groove she’d chipped into the stone years ago to follow the entire outline of Pita’s body.
Down along the inner thigh, the muscular calf, the ankle’s bones and tendons, she drew the charcoal, following that groove. Her left hand still pressed into Pita’s flesh hard enough to leave bruises as she knelt to draw her line along the outer leg, hip, waist, arm, smearing the skin as well. When she stood to trace around shoulder and neck and head, her body pressed so closely against Pita’s that she could feel their hearts pounding in counterpoint.
Sigri switched hands to draw the line down the other side. This time her fingers gripped Pita lower down, her palm pushing hard against the silent woman’s mound.
“Don’t move,” she warned, kneeling to complete the outline, moving the charcoal inch by slow inch upward toward the triangle between Pita’s thighs; but her left hand urged something different, sliding downward and kneading flesh grown hot and slippery. Still Pita stood immobile, except for her quickened breathing.
“Almost done,” Sigri murmured, so close that her breath stirred Pita’s pubic hairs; and then, as the lines met and the pattern was complete, she dropped the charcoal and leaned forward to taste what she’d been hungering for.
Pita did not move. Her stillness became a challenge. Sigri grabbed at her hips now with both hands and licked and bit at the flesh so clearly eager for what the will resisted. Pita’s thighs tensed.
Sigri worked her tongue deeply into Pita’s warm, welcoming cunt, then abruptly withdrew, and suddenly Pita’s hands were clutching at her short pale hair and trying to force her head closer. Instead, Sigri’s fingers took over, thrusting far into the depths she had once known better than her own.
Pita’s head tilted back. A sound like the low rumble of a cougar sure of its prey began deep in her chest. Then, as Sigri pounded into her faster and harder, Pita’s voice rose in pitch until her final cries could have rivaled the screams of an eagle.
When the echoes had subsided from flesh and stone, Pita slid down along the rock wall to slump against Sigri’s shoulder. They leaned together for a few moments, in perfect balance, until Pita lifted her head.
“That’s only half of what I came for,” she said, not altogether steadily. “Up against the wall, now. If you dare.” Intense emotion underlay the mocking words.
This ritual had always had more meaning for Pita than for Sigri, who looked up now at the cave wall.
The newly-blackened outline overlapped another, the pair linked so that the grooves defining arms and legs and torsos intersected as though two bodies stood close together, each with a hand on the other’s crotch. Their shapes were curved just enough to show that they were female, which, in Sigri’s case, had required a bit of exaggeration of her rangy lines; and, between each pair of hips, a line coiled across the belly into a spiral. Future archaeologists should have no trouble interpreting their symbolism.
Sigri did, of course, stand and press her back against her own outline on the rough rock wall. If she didn’t get fucked by Pita pretty damned soon she’d be banging her fist against that same wall. And when Pita stood before her, outlined by the glow of the fire, naked and wild as some shamanic spirit from the depths of time, Sigri felt the power of the ritual grip her.
“Sakwo’mapi akikwan,” Pita murmured. “Matsops.” Boy-girl. Crazy woman. Old words, signifying their connection to those who had gone before.
The stroke of Pita’s hand along her side, drawing the charcoal through the stone groove, the clutch of Pita’s fingers on her flat belly, heated Sigri’s blood to boiling. She needed to move, to thrust her hips forward, to grab at Pita and force her to feed the hunger pounding through her body.
Still she stood, as Pita had, pressed against the stone. Part of the mountains. Part of time. Linked to those who had gone before, and would come after.
Pita’s hand reached Sigri’s wet folds, probing into her depths, and time and place were swept away by the surging demand of her body. She clenched around the pressure, demanded it, devoured it, until her final shout of triumph rang out like the bugling of a bull elk in rut.
Then, like Pita, Sigri slid down the rock wall, ignoring the scrapes its roughness imprinted on her back. They huddled in each other’s grip until the little fire was almost out. Slowly they pulled each other upright.
“We have to go back,” Pita said softly. Sigri nodded. Going back meant more than just climbing down to the campsite. It meant Emmaline, and the ranch, and classrooms and archaeological expeditions and nubile grad students.
But there was still tonight. Where the trees met the rock Pita turned to flash Sigri a grin of challenge.
“I’ll race you,” she said, and then, shouting over her shoulder as she got a head start, “I did bring Little Big Horn, and first one back to camp gets him.”