"Sorry to keep stabbing you like that, bud."
Even though he couldn't understand me, I still apologized. He jerked some of the slack out of the reins, then dipped and nodded his head in apparent forgiveness. I hated using spurs to get the poor horse to move, but that's all he had ever known. As he tongued the bit back into a comfortable position behind his teeth, I made him a promise.
"I tell ya Dante... Next time I'm back this way, I'll train you without 'em."
I was making my way south towards the recently established Fort Missoula and had been riding the better part of the day. It was a good distance from the horse farm my brother and I owned on the northeast corner of Flathead Lake, and I needed some rest. My visit to the fort needed a little ironing out anyway, while I was still a few hours out.
As they had already done with so many other tribes, the United States Army had come into the area in hopes of "persuading" a few bands of Nimiipuu to relocate onto a reservation in Northern Idaho. But the army wasn't there for the reason they claimed publicly.
There had recently been some altercations between a few Nimiipuu and white ranchers near the Montana-Idaho border, and the close proximity between the two groups gave the army a perfect excuse to clear the area. However, the government didn't care about a few dead ranchers or "injuns." They cared about maintaining conflict. Maintaining violence. Distractions.
I dismounted and set up camp for the night beside a creek branching off the Clark Fork River. Dante needed to drink and rest, and besides, there wasn't much useful daylight left.
"Don't worry about the bit old friend... it's quittin' time for today."
As I loosened Dante's bridle and removed it, an aggressive strand of wind rolled off the mountains and captured my attention. Nature teased me with an alluded calm in the chaste scent of honeysuckle which was hitchhiking on the back of the breeze. I closed my eyes, slowly rolled my head directly into the wind, and took the biggest breath I could through my nose. If peace had a scent, it would smell like honeysuckle.
Even as I savored the fragrance that could make the most homeless of men feel at home, I became depressed and pessimistic. Honeysuckle was a timeless scent and it made me think of what I knew was to come, and how hopeless it seemed to try and change Earth's fate.
I opened my eyes just as the last pinch of direct sunlight escaped behind the mountains. The winds that had calmed me one moment, and then saddened me the next, were now cooling off quickly under the growing shadow of the incoming storm clouds. Despite not wanting to cover up the hint of honeysuckle with smoke, I decided to start a fire to lessen the impact of nature's impending loneliness.
While waiting for the fire to take hold, I realized I had almost forgotten how much I loved Earth's variety of weather. Humans take it for granted. A clear and blue sky ruled by an unobstructed sun doesn't have the vast range of color and emotion that a darkening sky has. When shades of blue, purple, pink, red, gray and black invade clouds of all shapes and sizes, the ground beneath them reflects a constantly-changing kaleidoscope of color. And when I'm fortunate enough to get caught in a storm, the rain that inevitably falls to kiss my skin almost makes me feel guilty for being a witness to Earth's nature at its most inspiring.
I'm tired of my mind doing this. Once again, the darker thoughts deep in my head began to crawl in and beat down the peaceful ones. I became overcome with memories of my wife and wished that I could, if only one last time, swap the smell of honeysuckle for the rich, but innocent smell of my wife's hair.
I guess it was my thoughts about the weather that reminded me of her. Like a typical, sunny, Earthly landscape, my wife went about her normal day presenting herself as she wanted the rest of the world to see her. But it was only at night when the clouds rolled in, as she prepared to lay down beside me, that only I could see all of her--in her complete and humbling beauty.
"They never knew what they had," I whispered gently.
My audible thought didn't seem to fall on deaf ears. Dante lifted his head up at me and joined in my admiration of the view. I moved towards Dante's back as another windswept hint of honeysuckle overwhelmed me.
"Neither did I, I guess," I admitted to no one but the campfire. It popped and hissed as a few raindrops were consumed by the flames.
Needing to clear my mind, I focused on pulling the straps under Dante's stomach to loosen and unlock the saddle girth. Absentmindedly, I pulled a strap a bit too tightly and Dante swung his head around to let me know.
"Ugh, sh..." I shook my head as I cut myself off. "Forgive me bud. I've got too much on my mind."
Dante made a half snort, half sneezing sound when I heard his stomach growl.
"Are you hungry too? Get'cha some of that," I suggested, as I raised my eyebrows and pointed my chin to some honeysuckle bushes.
I lifted my head up to the sky, welcoming a few direct hits of rain, while trying to remember the particular species.
"Lonicera caerulea... cauriana," I remembered, as I let my head drop. "You can eat it. Go on."
Dante was way ahead of me, nosing around in some small patches of the sweet flowers of one of the few species of honeysuckle that grew berries.
I removed his saddle and straddled it on top of its pad, and then over a nearby cedar that had fallen. I picked some berries for myself as I started to settle in for the night and watched as the disappearing mountains on the horizon gave way to a few visible stars that had dodged the cloud cover. The rain was slight, and the thin air provided a little hope that the incoming weather wouldn't be too intense for travel.
The relaxing whistling of the wind blew through the hole in my hat in an unobtrusive whisper, before finding a more expansive home in the weeds and grasses of the prairie. Dante chewed the berries and surrounding grass as his tail gently whipped back and forth, providing a steady illusion of serenity as I began to fall asleep. Before my weary eyes closed however, I suffered my earlier thought a few times more. They never knew what they had.
I woke up the next morning to a sky still camouflaged in tinted wisps of celestial cotton, and was glad to see it was still early. I needed to get to Fort Missoula while most of the soldiers were preoccupied down the road from their main fortification. Also, knowing the army was out there waiting to ambush the Nimiipuu who were trying to make their way north, I was hoping I'd have some spare time to warn my friends in case something went wrong. I saddled Dante up and headed out.
After a few hours ride, I came down the south side of the hills overlooking the fort and could see that I had timed my visit perfectly. Southwest of the main fort, on the horizon, I was barely able to make out what couldn't have been more than a few platoons. At the most, there seemed to be only a dozen or so soldiers staying behind at the fort which was immediately before me at the base of the hill.
Once Dante and I got to the base of the hill, I stood in the stirrups as we trotted to give my butt a rest. If I had gone in any faster, they probably would have shot me. As I made eye contact with a soldier at the fort's north gate, I raised my arm and flicked my wrist in a wave.
"It's Mr. Miles," the gate guard shouted in recognition. "Go on in sir!"
"Appreciate it," I acknowledged nonchalantly. Another soldier, worn out, walked the gate open in a sleepy haze.
I relaxed Dante into a walk and passed through the gate as I approached the command tent as a young corporal stepped out and eyed me with an expression of familiarity and relief.
"Good morning Mr. Miles. You here about the horses?"
"Mornin'! Yep," I confirmed. "I got a message from Colonel Gibbon saying you fellas needed a few. Is he around?"
He had no reason to believe I was there for any other reason but the one I gave him. After all, I was pretty sure I remembered selling them some horses a few times previously as the fort was being established.
"Well, you just missed him," the corporal conceded, pointing over the fort towards the horizon. "He's gone out with Captain Tate and B Company to oversee the start of a breastwork down the road. We're trying to cut off some of those red boys that are headed north."
"Oh, right," I responded in false disappointment. "I guess I could come back in a few days."
"Well, you sure? I know we need some more horses pretty quick, and he'll be back soon's he gets them started out there."
I pretended to weigh my options. After running my hand over my eyes and down my face, I scratched my chin and came out with a reply.
"It would be a waste of time riding to Flathead and back, I guess. I'll wait a bit."
"OK, then!" The corporal continued enthusiastically, "Go ahead and wait in his tent if ya like. I'll fetch some coffee."
"Thank ya much."
I pretended to stretch, stalling a few seconds before going in, making sure the tent was clear of any approaching patrols. When it looked like I'd have a few minutes to myself, in I went.
I was immediately overwhelmed with the colonel's arrogance which seeped from everything I saw. The tent was decorated and lavished with all the comforts of a wealthy 1877 American home. He had mirrors, porcelain basins, and what looked to be a thousand pound oak desk.
Who is this guy, a Caesar? I let out a soft chuckle while questioning myself silently. After getting over my personal amusement, I focused on my objective and froze when I saw what I had come here for.
I quickly crept over to the four-foot tall, steel safe and knelt down beside its door. As I reached for the locking mechanism, I paused to listen once more for any approaching soldiers.
I didn't hear anything. Time to do this.
Knowing the safe had just been delivered to Gibbon before his trip to the fort, and having researched what the manufacturer used for default combinations on new safes, I rushed to unlock it.
As the door quietly popped out I opened it slowly, even though the thin layer of grease applied by the manufacturer was still visible on the hinges. I couldn't risk making any sound. After squinting to inspect the contents of the safe, my eyes sprung wide open as I threw my hand in and grabbed what I needed.
The materials I had come for didn't disappoint in regards to what I thought they may detail. It was extremely intriguing considering it was only 1877. But, I didn't have time to linger. I raced through the loose papers at the speed of five pages a second and ingested all of the information as quickly as possible. When I heard a few muffled coughs, I was distracted and knew I didn't have much more time. I had to get out of there.
I rushed to finish reading just as the corporal returned and threw back the flap to enter the tent. There was a small, out-of-place electronic storage device that I scanned quickly and placed back in the safe. I reached for a bar of gold in the safe—and returned the documents to their original place as well. I didn't want to reveal the true reason for my intrusion.
"Hey! What do you think you're..."
The corporal didn't have time to finish his reprimand. As I leaped up from the ground I cut him off by slamming the bar of gold into his chin, knocking him unconscious. The tin coffee flagon and cup the corporal was carrying flew against the inside of the tent, and crashed to the ground in a metallic jumble. I barreled out of the tent and dumped the bar of gold in my saddlebag. As I untied Dante, a patrol from a few tents down addressed the commotion.
"Mr. Miles? What's going on?"
Another member of the patrol had seen a glimpse of the valuable metal fall into my saddlebag.
"He's stealing the gold! Shoot him!"
I was already in the stirrups by that time and gave Dante advanced warning of my incoming spurs.
"I'm sorry boy, one more time."
I snapped my knees and kicked him. Just as Dante shot away like a muzzle-loaded cannon, I was shot in the leg by a muzzle-loaded musket. I'd worry about that later, I thought to myself. There was no time for pain.
When I cleared the fort's west gate I heard another shot. I instinctively ducked, but quickly noticed it wasn't me who had been hit this time. Dante dug his front legs into the ground and bucked, almost throwing me off.
"Don't worry old friend. I've got'cha."
He calmed down quickly as I asked for his help in our immediate departure.
"We've got to get out of here... Come on boy!"
Off he went--thankfully. As I pulled a little slack out of the reins with my right hand, I extended my left arm out from my side and closed my eyes. As I concentrated on the race of one of my previous lives, I filled my mind with their world, their history, their culture, their abilities, and my prior experiences as one of them.
As I focused my thoughts, the sound of the commotion from Fort Missoula, Dante's gallop, and the wind slapping my ears disappeared. A snap of energy struck me from high above me as I thought of and beckoned it. I felt my eyes becoming heavy behind their closed lids. I no longer felt Dante pummeling the ground between my legs. When I opened my eyes I focused on Dante's neck as the awareness of my surroundings returned. I looked down and examined his neck. The bullet had struck him high on the thin part of his neck, right below his mane, and gone straight through.
Still galloping and holding the reins with my right hand, I continued to focus on my left arm which started to become invisible. When my arm had completely vanished, only its shadow remained as I moved it over Dante's wound. I made sure that the length of the shadow completely covered the bloodied area. As I pulled the shadow of my invisible arm back towards me, his wound healed and closed.
"That should fix ya up," I reassured Dante.
I then felt the cold wind remind me that my leg was bleeding profusely. I reached between my legs to check for an exit wound and discovered that the bullet that struck me hadn't gone all the way through. It was deep in the meatiest part of my thigh.
With my arm still invisible, I moved its shadow over my thigh and made small circular motions over the bullet hole. I closed my eyes for only the length of a long blink while I rapidly drew the shot out of my leg and caught the lead ball. As my entire arm and hand re-materialized, this wound closed as well. After throwing the ball over my shoulder, I picked up the reins with both hands and focused back on the ride.
I bypassed the company of soldiers at the breastwork and headed west--straight for Lolo Pass. By the time the few soldiers at the fort got to the breastwork and let them know what was going on, I'd be well on my way back to Flathead. But in case they caught up and prevented me, in this life, from making it off Earth in time, I had to let the Nimiipuu know what was going on.
After an all-out sprint, I came upon a scout I knew well from when I originally led this life. We had traded countless times and had developed a friendship over many years.
"Fierce Rapids! I don't have time to explain. The army is waiting to attack your people a few miles to the east," I warned, as I pointed back over my shoulder.
"What's wrong? You're bleeding!"
I had already forgotten about the blood I lost before healing myself.
"No, it's OK. Please, I have to go. Just, avoid the army!"
I hurriedly reached for the bar of gold in my saddlebag and tossed it at Fierce Rapids.
"You've been a great friend to me. Hopefully I can explain some day. Go!"
I knew the history of what eventually happened to the Nimiipuu. But if the soldiers caught up with me and prevented me from rewinding time, I hoped that my warning may save the Nimiipuu from their fate—changing the course of history be damned. It couldn't have ended up any worse than it did.
Not wanting to kick Dante again, I reached behind me and slapped the top of Dante's rear as hard as I could. As we started up again, I looked behind me to see Fierce Rapids turning around to meet up with the rest of his band, looking confusedly at the bar of gold, and then back at me as I rode away.
There weren't any signs of the soldiers yet, so I started riding north by northeast, directly back to Flathead. By the time I had reached the southern branch of the Clark Fork, Dante was beginning to tire, so I stopped and let him get a quick drink from the river.
Their horses were all back at the fort, I silently reminded myself. Being fairly sure there was time to get back to the ranch, I began to relax a little.
"Smoke 'em if you got 'em," I jokingly suggested to Dante. But, before Dante had a chance to dip his head towards the river for additional drinks, I heard the distinctive rumbling thuds of approaching cavalry.
"Uh oh, don't light up yet."
The now-mounted soldiers were cresting the hills on the horizon and surely caught sight of me. After making a few clicking sounds, I had Dante ford the river--or at least try to.
I had underestimated the depth of the river and Dante started to panic. I jumped off. Sitting on him wouldn't help the situation. When I landed in the water, I couldn't make contact with any ground. Still holding the reins with one hand, I bobbed up and down and paddled around for a bit trying to find the bottom of the river. As the soldiers rode closer and closer, I finally found it.
"Over here boy. Here ya go."
He responded well to me pulling on the reins and found the bottom of the river in seconds. I held the reins over my head to make sure he followed directly behind me until I reached the northern bank.
As Dante took his last steps out of the water, I looked to see where the soldiers were. They were a bit too close.
"Alright Dante, we gotta move."
I jumped back on Dante and continued towards Flathead. The cavalry wasn't within accurate firing distance, but I didn't want to risk it. I hated to give any hint as to who, or what, I really was in case I didn't make it out, but I was running out of time.
As I had done earlier, I closed my eyes again and recalled thoughts and memories of other worlds as I felt another slap of light rapidly envelop me. But this time, rather than assuming part of only one form, I appeared as a hybrid of three different races that I had previously lived as. When I opened my eyes, my throat felt greater in width and in density. The rest of my body, no longer appeared human.
My legs had taken a shape resembling those similar to a cheetah. But where the legs of a cheetah have hair, mine were now sheathed in glistening, emerald scales. Where my body was previously covered with skin, it was now covered with a mixture of white and dark gray feathers. Extending out from my spine sprouted a pair of metallic, razor-sharp wings.
And my throat, which just moments ago housed only one set of human vocal cords, had swelled to accommodate seven sets of distinct vocal cords.
I heard a shot, but it was only a panicking shot--it had no chance of reaching me from so far away, but I had to act now. As I let go of the reins, I spoke to Dante using only one voice, which didn't sound like that of my previous life as Mr. Miles anymore. It was richly and moderately pitched, and echoed slightly with a sound that resembled knocking on hollow wood.
"I'll be right back," I informed Dante.
Reaching into my saddlebag, I scooped out two massive handfuls of seeds and pitched them over my shoulder as hard as I could.
Using the power of my transformed legs, I then launched out of the stirrups ahead of Dante in anticipation of his continued gallop. As I rose in the air, high above Dante, I spun around in the direction of the pursuing cavalry. Now that I faced the approaching riders, I cleared my throat and screamed with the Voice of Seven. In a dissonant rupture of sound, the seven sets of vocal cords in my throat discharged long pulses of simultaneous quarter tones, semi tones, and whole tones.
Just as the seeds reached their apex, the air disturbances from my voices struck them. The seeds rocketed toward the soldiers at the speed of sound. When they arrived at the approximate halfway point between me and the soldiers, I began resolving the dissonance in my voices. I lowered or raised their pitch one at a time, and cadenced in a rich arrangement of harmonic octaves and perfect fifths.
As the previous dissonance gave way to this simple, but lush sound, the seeds plummeted to the ground and started to take root. These weren't normal seeds however, and they weren't magic seeds. They were Kestrellian Warder seeds. The Kestrelli grow Warders on the outskirts of their home-world territories to prohibit intruders from gaining easy access to their cities, homes, and to keep nests safe in their high canopies. They came in quite handy now.
The seeds, easily influenced by sonic manipulation, were forced to rapidly grow as I increased the volume of my voices. Detonating in an earthen roar, the Warders broke the surface of the landscape and began to rise. In just seconds, I could no longer see the approaching cavalry. The Warders' mammoth trunks, dense foliage and close proximity to each other immediately and significantly slowed the cavalry down. As they continued to grow, the Warders quickly fenced off an area many miles wide and at least a mile in height. The shadow of the canopies high overhead covered the surrounding ground for miles around. It was an incredibly impressive sight.
Shortly after, my throat began to hurt. The Voice of Seven isn't normally intended to be used at such a drastic volume over an extended amount of time. As I quickly allowed my voices to rest, I extended my heavy metallic wings and glided back down towards Dante.
In preparation for my landing, I turned around and faced forward, as the scissor sound of my wings snipped the air. Looking over my shoulder a final time, I watched as the Warders finished growing. I took solace in their captivating height of tens of thousands of feet.
Gently plopping back into the saddle, I patted Dante as he continued to gallop north towards Flathead Lake.
"That should slow them down," I said with an exhausted sigh.
I closed my eyes for just a moment and focused on the sights, sounds, and smells of my prior experiences on Earth as Rory Miles. When I opened them, I had re-assumed my appearance from just moments ago, as the human I existed as in 1877.
As I rode around the east side of the lake back towards our farm, I looked forward to seeing Rory's brother. He was an honest and fair man, and I remembered many a laugh we had shared. Before this latest visit, I hadn't been back to Earth in what equated to a few hundred human lifetimes.
As the back end of the storm circled around on the lake, I looked over my shoulder again to make sure the army wasn't anywhere in sight. When the southern fence of the farm appeared on the horizon, I slowed down to a canter and reiterated my promise to Dante.
"Alright," I reassured him. "I think we're in the clear bud. And I promise, I'll come back some day and train ya without those spurs."
My brother was right where I thought he would be. He was mending the gate to our inner corral when he heard me approach. He stood up to wipe the sweat off his face with his palm, and shouted just loud enough for me to hear him.
"Hey - where you been? I thought you said yesterday you'd fix this gate!"
I once again raised my arm and flicked my wrist in a wave, but my brother's hunger apparently overwhelmed his curiosity about where I had been. He skipped to his next question as he tossed his hammer into a crate of tools.
I rode through the gate and hopped off of Dante. After doing so, I slapped him on the rear and had him join the rest of the horses. I had made it back in time, and sighed in relief in knowing my brother would be alright. If I hadn't gotten back and been able to rewind time, there's no telling what would've happened to my brother. The army knew where our farm was.
"I sure am. But, I'll get something later. You go on ahead," I suggested, as I floated my hand in the direction of the house.
"Well, I could use a break from this heat. Alright," he eagerly responded.
As he began to walk to the house, he remembered his first question and turned back towards me.
"Oh yeah, where were ya?"
"Hopefully I can catch you up on all this someday, but not right now."
I had to get out of there and rewind time before the cavalry caught up. I knelt down on the balls of my feet and looked up at him. As my eyes became heavy once again, and began to glaze over with crystalline fragments of various color, I said goodbye.
"I've missed you brother. Take care of yourself."
Before he had a chance to respond to my enigmatic statement, Earth's always-present soul ribbon, which is visible only to other Astraeans, and slightly obscured by the storm clouds, shot down an extension of itself only large enough to encompass my body. In an almost immeasurable amount of time, this past life and its human appearance, gave way to my softly glowing, neon blue, and almost translucent soul.
As I rose from the face of the planet to my ship, which was parked on the ribbon, the events that transpired between my latest arrival and now, rewound through time. By the time I reached my ship, nothing that had just happened, happened. The past life of mine that I had just temporarily re-inhabited returned to where it originally was, before my visit. If I remember correctly, I believe I was working on that gate I told my brother I'd fix.
I found some information in the safe and discovered information I could act on, but most importantly, I got out of there before any harm came to Rory's brother.
After arriving back on my boat, I smiled as I leaned over the top deck rails and admired 19th century Earth and its last remaining bit of innocence. But once again, I was reminded of what was to come. I felt my smile slide down into reality as I stomped my feet on the deck to settle back into my usual body.
"Universal intersection Nine-Three. Flow factor Five," I stoically directed the ship.
The masts extended and unfurled the ribbon sails with a quickness and precision I've always enjoyed watching. The ship came about, and with a barely noticeable sound, it quickly accelerated--the view of 19th century Earth disappearing quickly behind.
I traveled towards the intersection and collected my thoughts. This part of my spiritual space travel never ceases to humble me. But, there was still a dense weight in my mind. In an attempt to alleviate it, I quickly gave the ship another order, narrowing down my request as I climbed the stairs to the top deck.
"Ninth universe. Earth. 20th century, local time. Music."
I paused for a moment, having trouble deciding what I wanted to hear. My ship's computer prompted me for additional information in a recorded, mature human female's voice.
"Specify artist and title," it requested.
As the song began playing, a familiar wave of regret swallowed me as I propped myself on the deck rails and watched my ship play slalom with the stars. I tried to get the perfection of hindsight out of my mind as I focused on my next move.
Once I reached the intersection, I needed to allow time to advance a bit, and then it would be back to 24th century Earth to meet up with The Trio and share what we had collectively discovered. The fate of the multiverse had seemingly been decided much earlier than any of us knew. Fate itself was being manipulated. And those doing it were no friends to the Astraeans.