Title: Puppet

Pen name: jmolly a.k.a. Jess Molly Brown

Pairing/Characters: Jasper, Peter and Charlotte (no slash)
Fandom: Twilight
Rating: M

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is merely coincidental.

Much thanks to my Beta, Lissa Bryan; my Pre-reader, ladylibre; and my Banner maker, Raum.

Summary:

1933. When Maria reveals her plan to cull the next crop of Yearlings, Jasper warns Peter to take his mate and run. Jasper remains a virtual prisoner in Maria's fort. Can Peter lead him to freedom?

Warning: Violence, Assault and Lust

New Mexico, 1933…

His shoulders sagged as he shuffled into the stable, looking every bit his age. The old Doughboy uniform he habitually donned for his missions did nothing to dispel that impression. Although in beautiful condition, it was horribly outmoded. It wasn't even from his war but he would not part with it. He said it was lucky.

Our company's five horses stomped on jittery feet, nervous sweat collecting on the flanks of the four mares. The major's mahogany bay stallion was accustomed to his master and did not fuss. I marched after Maria's general, my good friend, and clapped him on the back with false enthusiasm, praying to the devil that he hadn't noticed my change in loyalties.

"Best we get it over with, compadre," I said with a smile of encouragement.

"Guess so." The major stroked his hand down El Corazón's neck with an obvious lack of energy and the horse nuzzled against him affectionately. I marveled at it, even though I had seen him use his talent to tame animals many times since my rebirth. He kissed the horse's white star. "There's my boy."

When I reached for the bridle of my favorite mare, Sugar, she avoided my hand and backed farther into the stall with a cry, the whites of her eyes ringing the pupils. The major stared at her and she blew out her breath, blinked away tears, gentled, and allowed my touch. I thanked him quietly.

I climbed into the saddle and we galloped into the night. The cheerful jingle of tiny brass bells on the harnesses clashed with our purpose.

An hour later, near the cantina, a woman's hysterics cut through the stifling heat. Venom let down onto my tongue, but I knew my dominant companion would choose to feed for once. He slipped from the saddle of the galloping stallion, passed me his reins and vanished into the shadows. Moments later, with a last cry, the woman subsided into quiet weeping. And then, nothing.

My pale mare shivered, comforted only by the presence of the stallion. It pressed its side against hers with a reassuring whicker.

The major emerged carrying his burden: a raven-haired senorita in a white peasant blouse with a ruffled skirt the color of the rainbow. He passed her up to me and I cradled her gently. Already, the venom was taking hold.

"I will return momentarily," he told me at vampire pitch. "Wait."

Indeed, he returned in mere moments, with a man the size of a bloated ox slung over his shoulders. But this one was not breathing. The brute's shirt was untucked, as was his manhood. The major did not bother about it. Nor did he burden his beloved horse. Instead, he carried the corpse himself. He regarded me with eyes replete from his kill and jerked his head to the side. "Go ahead."

I did not hesitate, but handed him the reins. Down the road, there was a brothel reeking of sickness. I helped myself to two of the oldest whores. The one was close to death. I took her quickly, then bit the other one and carried both women out. "Let's be on our way."

We ran alongside the horses, back the way we had come, carrying the dead on our shoulders with our changelings slung over our mounts, tied lest they fall. Out in the desert, the major threw the man's corpse to the ground with such violence that it bounced. I tossed the dead woman on top of it. Taking the shovel from his saddle bag, the major made quick work of the disposal and left no trace. Then, he mounted El Corazón and placed the senorita over his lap.

"She will not care for this one," I cautioned him. "Too pretty. Too gentle."

"Aw, Peter." He shook his head. "She will care for whom I please."

I could not believe my ears. "I have never… heard you say a word against her before."

Smiling faintly at the woman in his arms, his gaze flickered over to me. "Tell me again about home."

"Texas or Boston?"

"Your home."

"Boston is a huge city. Everything is within reach of the Common. Theaters, museums, so many shops…And the ocean. You may go out on a fishing boat and the whales will wave hello with their tails. It is a majestic sight. And when a great ship from the Old World sails into port, the beauty of it is unparalleled."

"And your mother?" He had never asked me something so personal before. I had assumed he was disinterested and so had not spoken of those lost to us. But we were certainly well-enough acquainted that I did not hesitate to share my past or my feelings.

"Warm as a wool shawl and sweet as apple pie. She will have given up now. How I did love to hear her sing." I darted a look at him. "What of your mother?"

"I do not remember one at all. Green grass. I remember the scent. And the guitar."

"But…"

"Why do I not remember?" His mouth turned down. "When you all wake up, what do I do?"

"You ask questions all the time." My eyes opened wide. "They didn't ask you about yourself?"

"They welcomed me to the army, told me my name and offered me my mare for a first meal. Plumb scared 'em when I did not oblige."

"I expect it did." I eyed him sidelong. Something was bothering him. Something more than usual.

"That was many generations before El Corazón. Look how many descendants Dixie has now."

Anxiety chafed at me. "What is troubling you?"

"When I came to this life in 1863, she worked me over like I work El Corazón."

"Dona Maria."

He nodded. "I was so in love with her that I bought everything she sold me. Whenever something did not feel quite right, whenever I had a doubt, whenever I questioned the cruelty, she drowned me in affection and I…"

"Major, what are you saying?"

He bowed his head. "I wish you would call me Jasper."

I swallowed hard. "Jasper?"

"She is courting that piece of shit from the German embassy."

"The Nazi?"

"Yes. He says the Mexican government is going to deport all the Jews and ban any new ones entry."

"Hm. Perhaps to give jobs to Mexicans?" The United States had been deporting Wetbacks since 1926, causing Mexico's population to bulge with repatriated citizens.

"The Nazi says they aren't human. He's praising the Mexican government."

I snorted. "Loco."

"Humans are downright stupid in most respects."

"Will the Jews be deported? Is he right?"

"Maria hopes so. Just imagine how many deportees she could recruit. Nobody would think to miss them."

"Well, it would be a good source of fresh soldiers."

"For more wars. Yes." He looked displeased.

"So, flirting with this Nazi isn't such a bad thing, if he tells her his secrets."

"That's not her purpose. Besides, the bastard isn't quite human. He has no compassion. No love."

"And you've told her this?"

"If anything, my assessment of his character made him climb in her favor."

I could not believe my ears. "She favors him? Over you?"

"She wishes to turn him once he's obtained all the information that she can use from the politicians. If she turns him, mayhap he will take my place. And yet I cannot see her releasing me from my duty."

"She will want you to continue training her Newborns."

"And disposing of her Yearlings. It was easier to do what she wanted when I could pretend what I had with her was real. But Maria i'n't in love with me and…"

"Major!" To voice the idea aloud smacked of treason. I wished my friend would stop talking!

"Do not call me that! I detest the name."

"My apologies. Jasper."

"I am not in love with her. I hate everything she stands for."

"Why are you telling me this? Are you planning a mutiny?"

"Good lord, no. The last thing I want is to be in charge of this coven. Disciplining all of Maria's soldiers is enough trouble. I do not intend to jump in the soup anytime soon. No sir, it is hot enough outside the pot."

"Then—"

"I need to tell you something. Do not run. You are my friend and I will do you no harm."

My skin prickled. "All right."

"I know about Charlotte."

Panic clawed at my throat. I pushed it away. "What about her?" I asked casually. "She's just another Yearling."

He sighed. "Peter. I am asking you to carry my secrets as I carry yours."

"Your secrets?" Blood churned and soured in my gut. What did he know of my secrets?

"They have all made assumptions that I have not corrected."

"About?"

"My abilities. Not only do I manipulate emotions, I can read the truth of all your hearts better'n a fortune teller."

I fought the urge to run. "Are you telling me you have made me feel things for Charlotte that are not real?"

"No. Quite the opposite. What I am saying is, I know you love Charlotte. And she loves you, for you are mates." His expression was soft and I began to relax.

"I still don't understand why you're telling me this."

The major laughed a little. "Do you know how many mated pairs I have been exposed to since 1863?"

"No idea."

He held up his forefinger. "One. Just one. One mated pair out of this whole lot of devils. Your bond amazes me already. I wish I had some way of showing it to you. Took me a while to suss out what it was, but once I did, I knew. You have a mate and I do not."

I gasped. "Are you certain of this?"

"Maria and I are not mates. There is no bond. And though she has made me the Dom of this territory, my power is illusory. If ever I turned my coat against her, she would not hesitate to do me in."

"How could she, when you are a consummate warrior?"

He grimaced. "Her talent is subtle. She has the power to persuade others. We all submit to her wishes without realizing it. When I am out of her presence, I see the truth of what has transpired. I am cautious of her now, but what if she should tell me that I am melancholy and would be better off dead? I now act based solely on logic rather than emotion. It is contrary to vampiric nature."

I almost wished that he hadn't told me. "Are you going to run away?"

"Now, what in tarnation would be the sense of that? She would not part with me and she holds treaties with every coven she meets. She annihilates any who will not submit. None of those lily-livered Doms would protect me. I am better off here where I can manipulate her emotions. But, Peter, you must take Charlotte away from here or you will both perish."

"Why?"

"In one month, the Newborns will be of age. Maria will order me to destroy any that are not of use to her. Charlotte has no special talents and she is not a good fighter."

The panic drowned me again. "Dona Maria will order you to kill Charlotte."

"Yes."

"I will take her away."

"Excellent. We must stage a fight. You must prevent me from following you. Injure me if you must, I will not mind."

"Why don't you just come with us? You could cause the Dona to be disinterested in you."

"She is already personally disinterested in me but she values me as her tool. Her interest is dispassionate. Maria would never leave us alone. If I should run, I would have to ask for asylum. If I could find a Dom strong enough to beat this army, I would still be under the command of another warmongering Dom. No matter where I go, I will be used as an instrument of destruction. You and Charlotte, on your own, might manage to remain nomads and live in peace. I want that for you. Knowing you were safe… that would make me glad."

"But you are unhappy here."

He shook his head. "I cannot imagine being happy anywhere."

"But—"

"I feel everything they feel."

I glanced at him. "I… their blood is sweetened by the fear."

He laughed softly. "Not for me. It all tastes the same. And the fear… it taints it. They fear me when I drink them, when they realize they're dying. They fear me when I change them and every time it makes me recall my own transformation. Then they obey me out of fear. Or some manufactured emotion. All of them, except you. And then, when Maria decides she does not want them anymore, I feel their recognition of my betrayal, and their terror. Their spirits snuff out and that is a terrible thing. Our emotions are so much stronger than those of the humans. My emotions…"

"You don't just feel their emotions. You're an empath."

"It's a curse." We rode in silence for a time. "Peter, promise me you will do something better with your life than scrap over a mite of barren desert. Take Charlotte and show her that ocean. The ships coming into that harbor."

"I promise."

When we drew near to Maria's fort, we smelled the sickly odor of burning flesh. Guttural screams, high-pitched shrieking and arguing carried to us on the wind.

Outside the gate, an unrecognizable male rolled upon the ground, a giant, screaming fireball.

"Dang!" Jasper drew his saber from its silver sheath and approached the suffering vampire, striking off his head. It rolled across the dry ground and came to rest at the foot of a rock.

The major did not hurry to find the source of the trouble. We entered the fort, ignoring the guards. Maria was screaming at one of the Newborns, who was kneeling on the stone. Jasper walked his stallion to the stable, leaving his changeling on the ground in the courtyard, so I untied mine from the saddle and left her, too. Jasper regarded a pile of straw in the corner of the stable and smiled, looking at me intently. My nostrils quivered; Charlotte was hidden in the straw. I took the reins from my friend and ushered the horses to their stalls while he returned to the courtyard.

"What is this?" he demanded.

"Darling Jasper," Maria said. "This runt of a Yearling almost succeeded in setting fire to our fort tonight in a fit of pique."

"Who was destroyed?"

"Thomàs."

Jasper gaped at her. "Young Juan killed Thomàs? They were friends!"

"Oh, no! They conspired together against me. Against us, mi amor. I made Young Juan set him on fire. You were right. Lucy turned him too young. Kill him for me."

Young Juan whimpered. "No, por favor!"

I peeked out of the open door and saw the major widen his stance. "He is not as young as we thought and his talent is useful." I found myself agreeing with Jasper. There was no reason to think the boy kneeling upon the stones at his feet was a threat. Maria, however, stomped her foot and crossed her arms. Then, she smiled softly and sashayed to Jasper's side.

"He is disloyal, mi amor." Maria nuzzled Jasper's ear, as she had so many times before when seeking to get her way. She walked around his back, caressing his shoulders, and whispered in the other ear. "He cannot be trusted!" For the first time, I understood her wiles.

The major shuddered and eyed her coldly. "I need him for the siege."

Maria snapped her fan at him. "Then, you get him under control!"

He crossed his arms and a white crackle of hatred passed through the fort, making everyone except Dona Maria gasp and quake. Then, honeyed calm and affection took root in my chest and I knew he was placating us.

"You want me to get this young-un under control, Dona Maria?"

She bared all her teeth. "Yes!"

"No matter what it takes?"

"Use any means necessary! Beat him! Bite off his fingers! Fuck him! I don't care!"

Something terrible rippled through my skin. Charlotte sat up in the straw, her eyes huge and black. "Peter?" I held out my palm to silence her. My hand shook. The major hated profanity.

Jasper's eyes turned deadly black and I knew the Dona was not being flippant. "You. Want me. To Fuck. This. Newborn."

"I don't care! Do whatever you want, just get him to submit, mi amor." She flapped her skirt, turned her back on him and stalked toward her rooms, her sharp heels clicking on the stone.

Jasper grinned sardonically at the boy at his feet. "How ladylike." He patted Young Juan on the head. "Why do you insist on trying to get yourself killed?"

"Please, Major!" The boy's lip trembled. He reached out and placed his hands on Jasper's person. "I will do anything you wish!"

Jasper put his weight back on one heel and nudged the boy's hands away with his stiff leather puttee. "For what?"

"My freedom! I do not wish to be a soldier."

"I cannot save you from that."

"Please! I don't wish to kill. I just want to go home."

"Well, killing is not very ladylike, is it Juanita?" He grasped the Yearling's hair. "Silly woman. Did you truly think you could keep it from me?"

I gasped. It was true that the Newborn's scent was peculiar, but I had always attributed that to youth.

Bleakly, Jasper looked over at me and mouthed, "Run."

There was no longer any need for me to stage a fight with my friend. I took a step backward, spun on my heel and dove for Charlotte. Grasping her wrist, I pulled her to the door.

"I am going to hell, sweet girl," Jasper said sorrowfully, stroking the bewildered Yearling's face, "and I am taking you with me."

A surge of lust hit me that was so powerful it stopped me in my tracks. Throughout the compound, vampires cried out. I turned on my heel to regard my mate. Her eyes were black, shot through with silver fireworks. I bent to kiss her, to touch.

My ardor was abruptly extinguished as though I had been doused with a wave of icy Atlantic water.

I spun as Jasper tore the garments from the mewling girl and forced her onto all fours. "I am doing this for you," he told me. "Loyalty is more to be treasured than gold. I will have my revenge on those who betray me. Keep your promises."

"Yes!" the girl cried, wiggling her backside toward him.

Not wasting a further moment, I ran to the pale mare and lifted Charlotte up before me. From everywhere came sounds of debauchery. There was not one of the company unaffected. Even Maria could be heard spouting oily endearments as she rutted.

"What is happening?" Charlotte whispered. I placed my finger over her lips and kicked Sugar's sides. We burst out of the stable like the devil himself was on our heels. Jasper nodded solemnly at me as he sank to one knee and unbuckled his belt. Passing the barracks, I saw males emerge to capture females and push them to the ground. At the gates, a pair of male guards was indulging in acts I never thought to witness. They let us pass unquestioned. I gritted my teeth and spirited my mate away, wishing I could have sheltered her from such knowledge.

I drove my dear horse hard through the darkness, until she lathered, exchanging not a word with my mate. In Albuquerque I watered, stabled and sold Sugar, with her tack, to a kindly man for the amount of thirty dollars. Although she was worth far more to me, I was not sure that Maria's scouts would not search us out and cost the human his life. Therefore, I did not argue the price with him.

Charlotte and I ran north to the Four Corners of America: the place where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado intersected.

"Will you explain it to me now?" my mate asked me.

"We owe our lives to Jasper."

She blinked. "Jasper?"

"Major Whitlock. He knew Dona Maria planned to destroy you and that I would soon follow. For friendship, he engineered our escape. He wished us freedom and joy."

"Remarkable. He risked all for our sake."

"He told me his talent is a curse, for he shall always be used as an instrument of war. But he said that if you and I were able to find a peaceful corner of the world to live happily, he would remain glad despite his… captivity."

Charlotte's eyes widened. "The poor fellow! We must go back for him!"

"We cannot go now, for we have no safe plan. To go back now, when they will be searching for us, is to waste this opportunity of freedom for which he has sacrificed. We must establish ourselves somewhere and return for him when no one expects it."

We traveled in the night to the Grand Canyon, where we pledged our troth before the stars and jumped four miles down into the Colorado River, knowing that our scents would be lost. From there, we crossed Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and my beloved Boston. After dipping our feet in the Atlantic one night, admiring a tall ship in the port and sending up thanks to Jasper, we established roots in Rhode Island.

Not two weeks from the day Jasper sacrificed the last of his morals, my bride and I commenced to set up a household of our own. We preyed upon the unscrupulous for funds. Nobody in the world missed them.

Hitler gained power and the world remained fractious. Often, Charlotte and I would wonder how Jasper fared, knowing only that Maria would continue to battle for dominion of the tumultuous South. In Rhode Island, no one troubled us. We lived in a house of two floors with five bedrooms, a stable, a wood and a pond replete with fish and small game. I was able to purchase and tame three fillies and a colt –which I eventually put out to stud for the princely sum of ten dollars. In this way, we prospered. Four years later, in November, I took leave of my wife and followed rumor back to our beginning.

On the first day of January, 1938, I stationed myself in the dark street outside a saloon in southern Galveston, the City of Sin, and waited. To my delight, my luck was wonderful. A solitary figure, bowed with the weight of experience, rode into town on a powerful, mahogany bay stallion. My friend frowned and sniffed at the air. He was thinner than I remembered and his shirt cuffs were frayed. He still wore the leather puttees, but the boots did not match them. His old pair must have worn out.

I stepped out of shadow, holding the reins of my young butterscotch mare. Jasper's jaw dropped. His eyes warmed and he slid from the saddle of El Corazón, gazed with admiration at my horse and clasped my hand.

"Look at you," he said, beaming. "Look at you!"

"Happy New Year," I said.

"Indeed!" he pumped my hand, wrapping his other hand around my bicep and holding tight. "You are a sight for sore eyes."

"Come home."

With alacrity, he began to mount his horse, and froze. His smile fell away. He wrapped the reins around a hitching post. Grimacing, he unbuckled his saddle bag, rifle and sword and handed them to me, then quietly stepped up to his horse's face. He stroked El Corazón's nose and the horse whickered happily. "Hey, boy." He traced his fingers over the white star and scratched behind the horse's ear. "If there is any justice in the world, she will not punish you because of me. We have been together a long time. Seven years, almost. But here, I must leave you." He kissed the stallion on the nose. "Goodbye, my loyal friend. I wish you a long life."

He hugged the animal for a moment and then the horse amazed me by putting its leg over his shoulder and hugging him back. It fluttered its lashes over misty eyes, almost as though it understood they would not meet again.

"You can bring him along," I said quietly.

"She will track him easily and he would slow us down." He took several lumps of sugar from his pocket and El Corazón crunched down on it happily.

"I would agree with you, my friend, had I not arranged for El Corazón's passage on the train."

Jasper bit his lip and screwed his eyes shut. It was the last vulnerability I would see from him in many days.

"What is your mare's name?" he asked me as we began to ride toward the channel to the mainland.

"Cadence."

"That's a lovely name."

"All our new breeding horses have musical names. Calliope and Melody, Figaro and Harmony have joined Miss Prissy and Marguerite."

"Tell me all about them," he urged, so I did. Fifty miles from Houston, while we were still talking, Jasper lifted his head and sniffed the air. His eyes turned black.

"Maria's coming," he breathed. "She has ten males with her. They're plenty mad. And Nettie and Lucy are coming along behind."

"Damn it!" We spurred our horses forward through the black streets. Their ears lay flat against their heads and our hair streamed back in the wind. "How did she find out so fast that we were gone?"

"She must have had someone loyal to her following me. We need to take to the water!"

Weaving through dirty, brothel-filled streets, we hoped ourselves lost, but it was not to be. The air was rife with the scent of vampire. Jasper turned to look me in the eye, as he drew his gleaming saber from its scabbard, in a dark alley. "Remember what I taught you! Bayonet ready!"

I took my bayonet from the barrel of my rifle and fixed it on. Not a breath later, a heavy body almost knocked me from Cadence's back. She screamed and dove forward, bucking so that the male lost his grip upon my shoulders. His skull cracked sickeningly under her hoof. He did not rise.

"You dare turn against me?" Jasper bellowed at vampire pitch as his horse spun in a tight circle. "You think you can defeat the one that trained you?" His sword flashed through the air and a vampire's head thudded to the ground, eyes rolling back.

"Come back to the fort then!" one of the three-year-olds snarled. Two more males grasped at each of our horses. I drew back my bayonet and gouged out the closest one's eye. While I stabbed at the throat of the male grappling for Cadence's bridle, El Corazón lashed out with his front hooves, knocking down another one and trampling him. El Corazón cried out and I smelled blood. Jasper leaned forward with a growl and sliced the heads from three males with one blow.

"They are both traitors!" Maria screamed at vampire pitch. "I will give a hefty prize to whoever destroys the major! But don't kill my horses!"

"Finally, her true colors come out!" Jasper laughed, kicking away a Newborn that was trying to bite through his puttee.

I succeeded in stabbing the male holding Cadence's bridle sufficiently to cause his head to wobble. I reached down, grabbed his hair and pulled upward. Venom spattered on my clothes and Cadence whinnied as it touched her flank. Another male leaped up behind Jasper and he twisted sideways, taking his former pupil in a headlock and snapping his neck. Jasper snatched up his saber before it could hit the ground. It arced up and came back down, slicing into a vampire's arm. The biter used the falling body as a ladder and wrapped his hands around Jasper's throat. The major joined his hands upon the handle of his saber, pointed it at the sky and sliced through one of the vampire's wrists. Jasper raised his sword over his head, brought down the grip on his opponent's head and butted foreheads with him. The vampire dropped to the ground, his face horribly cracked. Jasper's own forehead bore a deep gash. He pressed his palm to it, but sat tall.

"Get them!" Maria screeched. Nettie and Lucy ran down the alley toward us. I raised my rifle and fired it point blank into Nettie's eye. It was the first violent noise, in all that time, audible to humans. Inside the gambling dens, they pushed back chairs and rushed to the windows. Lucy cried out and cradled her fallen friend to her breast, forgetting about us entirely.

"Go! Go! Go!" Jasper shouted at vampire pitch, spurring El Corazón away. I nudged Cadence's sides with my heels and she tore after them.

Behind us, Maria swore a blue streak in Spanish and promised revenge. However, she and Lucy could not follow us, for a crowd of humans had joined them in the alley.

"What in the Sam Hill is going on here?" a man shouted.

"Help! Please! Murderers!" Maria cried. Men began to shout and run for their horses.

Cadence and I raced after Jasper and El Corazón. I wondered if Jasper planned to use the old train trestle bridge to cross to the mainland. It was the shortest route, but Galveston Island was built mainly on sand and I feared for the bridge's stability. On horseback, each of us would put at least twelve hundred pounds' worth of stress on it. Behind us, I could hear Maria shrieking threats at vampire pitch. Houston seemed impossibly far away.

Jasper bypassed the bridge. He led El Corazón to the bay, then along the sea wall to the port. Blood was congealing on the horse's left quarter. To our immense relief, a barge was loading up goods destined for the mainland. Jasper spoke to the boatman and passed him money.

"That's quite the costume you have there," the boatman said as he led us up the gangplank. "First World War, ain't it?"

"I will give you five dollars not to notice it," Jasper said.

"Someone after you?"

"My wife."

The man laughed as Jasper and I each took our horse to a separate area of the deck so that our weight would be similarly distributed.

"Stay out of the wind," my friend warned me. "Low to the deck."

I sank down and sat between Cadence's forelegs.

When we disembarked, I noticed that Jasper had stitched El Corazón's wound. "Hopefully, Maria won't be able to smell it. How far to the train station?"

"About 45 miles."

Before dawn, we had reached Fresno and the horses were exhausted from crossing swampy terrain. We led them into an abandoned barn and I stole a bucket of oats from a distant ranch. Jasper rubbed the animals down.

"Will Maria still be searching for us?" I asked.

"Yes, but she won't have an easy time finding our trail through the bayou. She is not a good tracker and there is no way for her to get a message back to Ahiga."

"Is he Navajo?"

Jasper nodded curtly. "Even he is not going to be able to track us on a train."

Two nights later, we led El Corazón and Cadence into a boxcar in Houston and rode with them north as far as Kansas, beyond which we hoped Maria would not venture. There, Jasper and I arranged for the care and transport of our animals to Boston, and left them in the hands of a hired groom. We, ourselves, took many detours. The night of January Fourth, we ran from Kansas City to Cedar Rapids, doubled back to Des Moines, swam to the fork where that river met the Mississippi, hopped out and began to run across Illinois.

The new day dawned. Jasper cried out and reached for me, making me jump. He stood in the shadow of the trees with hands outstretched, fingers flexing, and his eyes huge and black.

"What's the matter?" I asked.

He looked at me sidelong, then at his hands. He inched forward and put his palm out into the light. When it glinted in the sun, he flinched. He turned his hand this way and that, and shook his head. He licked his lip. "Maria said… we burn up in the sun."

"What a horrible female," I scoffed. "The light doesn't hurt us. Come on."

He stepped into the sunlight. "It does not hurt us!"

"Of course not."

"How in tarnation did you find out?"

"When Charlotte and I were in the Colorado River, the sun came up and there was nowhere to hide. We thought we were goners but it was fine."

Jasper cackled darkly. "Maria does not know! She is terrified of the sun!"

"Serves the cow right!"

"I'll be jiggered."

"You are thin," I said somewhere near Fort Wayne.

"I stopped hunting. It pains me to feed on humans but I fear I will soon get to a point when I cannot resist."

At our next rest stop, I hunted for Jasper, snapping the man's neck and presenting him to my friend. It became a habit.

All across America, he asked endless questions in the great cities, remarking upon street cars, modern farm equipment, the funny papers, celluloid and telephones. I insisted that we stop at a cinema in Pittsburg and my friend was awestruck. The first picture was Fun and Fancy Free, followed by Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. We discussed the bravery of the heroine at length. However, Jasper had still not spoken of his experiences.

By the time we reached Boston on the twelfth of January, he looked stronger.

"Look, my brother!" I pointed at the snow-laden house on the horizon just before dawn. "That is home."

"Home…"

A short time later, Charlotte threw aside her apron, jumped off the verandah and ran down to the gate. By the time I opened it, she was clapping and jumping up and down. "Welcome! Welcome home my dears!"

Jasper removed his new cowboy hat and bowed. "Mrs. Mitchell." He looked highly disconcerted when my wife took him by the ears and kissed him on both cheeks. She smelled of snow, and flowers and beeswax. I did not stand on ceremony but kissed her soundly.

"Oh, none of that! I am Charlotte to you as always. Come, Jasper!" She beamed, taking his arm. "El Corazón and Cadence arrived safely, three days ago. I know you will be glad to see him and we must show you our horses."

"Thank you, ma'am!"

"Peter, you will never guess! Prissy is with foal and so is Marguerite!"

"Wonderful, news, wife!" I put my hand on Jasper's shoulder and followed Charlotte to the stables. Inside, El Corazón neighed and shifted in his excitement. Jasper released him from his stall, sweet-talked him and embraced him. The stallion was so overjoyed that Jasper seemed overcome.

"I do not know how to thank you," he said, pumping my hand.

"We would be ash without you," I reminded him.

Charlotte rejoiced as Jasper guessed the name and story of each horse and yearling, excepting the one I had not told him about. My friend was obviously pleased when none of the animals made strange with him.

"What's that one called, then? Peter, you did not say there was a colt."

"Because, dear brother, he is for you." Charlotte tugged the halter of our white and black yearling colt so that it stepped forward in its stall. Jasper reached out a tentative hand and touched the horse's snow white cheek.

"For me?"

"We did not sell him, knowing you would come." I pointed at the snowy yard. "There is a lovely pasture for El Corazón when he grows too old to carry you, and by then, this colt will be well-trained. And of course, we hope to breed El Corazón with our mares."

"Yes!" Charlotte nodded. "We have four pastures, one for each stallion and one for the mares during their season. We run them together when they aren't breeding."

"Geewhilakers. It all sounds so lovely. I am much obliged." Jasper ran his hand over the colt. "So white and proud you might think he's an angel except for those black ears, and then you see his behind. He looks like he sat down in an inkwell. And he's so tall already. What kind of horse is this?"

"He is an American Torvero, a cross between a Paint and a Pinto," Charlotte said. "Figaro, our stallion, as you see, is a thoroughbred black and the dam a Torvero. This breed is known for agility, speed and spirit." She offered Jasper a bunch of carrots to feed him.

"Thank you," he murmured as the horse nibbled away, drooling foam over the carrot tops. El Corazón decided life was not fair and whinnied for a share. Jasper searched his pockets and came up with a sugar cube, which El Corazón ate up eagerly. "What is his name?"

"You must name him," I said.

Jasper glanced at me. "Must he have a musical name?"

"You must name him whatever you wish."

My friend's eyes flickered over the horse. "All my horses have been named for warriors except El Corazón. Will you think me disrespectful if I call him something silly?"

"I am dying to know what you're thinking!"

"Goofy."

I laughed aloud. "Goofy?"

"After that critter in the Mickey Mouse cartoons. Fun and Fancy Free. That is what I wish."

"What a marvelous name," I said with fondness.

Charlotte smiled. "The name of a true friend with a heart of gold." She patted Jasper's elbow. "My dear, I would like to show you where you are to stay."

"Can't I stay out here with the horses?"

"You can spend all the time with the horses that you want, but surely you would like a space of your own. And perhaps you would care to change your clothes."

Jasper peeked at her uncertainly. "All right." He picked up his saddlebag and followed her outside.

Charlotte led him into the house, up the gleaming oak staircase and into the large bedroom at the opposite end of the hall to ours. "I do hope you like it here."

"It is like a patch of Heaven, ma'am."

"I'm so glad. I'll let you get settled. Please tell me if there's anything you need." Charlotte hurried downstairs and we heard her add logs to the fire in the parlor.

Jasper gazed at the Home Sweet Home sampler on the wall, took his rifle and sword and put them on the hooks mounted above the fireplace, looked at them, stroked the spine of Huckleberry Finn on the small table by the wing-backed leather chair, and pinched the crisp blue cloth of the hand-sewn shirt and store bought dungarees lying on the bed. Charlotte had set a cozy pair of slippers on the pillow.

"Peter?" He didn't look at me.

"Yes?"

"Are you real?"

I beamed at him. "Real? Of course I'm real. Do you want me to pinch you?"

"I'm not… crazy, then?"

I pinched his arm. Hard.

"Ow!" He hopped backward, paced and sat gingerly in the chair. He looked out the window with its sheer curtains. His lip quivered.

"Maria made me kill her. Juanita."

I sat on the edge of the bed, all happy thoughts gone.

He blinked rapidly. "She was seventeen. Disguised herself so she could work on a ranch and take money home to her mother. Lucy poached her."

"I'm sorry."

He pushed back his tangled hair. "Yeah, well. She was a more generous lover than Maria, that's for sure."

"Was this right after I left?"

"No." He smiled wryly. "I kept them going at it for pretty near four days, so you know. Some of them were still rutting for days after that. Maria included. By the time she came up for air, Juanita and I were… I suppose you could say we were friends." He paused and stretched his leg out. "Maria was mad as a wet hen when she found out, but I pointed out that she'd had her fill of the Nazi for almost a week and that obviously a thought of me had not entered her head. She stuck her nose in the air and marched off, and after that things went back to normal, excepting she was not asking me for favors any more. But then, the Birthday came and… and she made me kill the … the young-uns. She only kept six out of twenty."

"I'm so very sorry."

"So am I. But it was the last time she was able to control me. The horror broke her hold on me like cutting the strings on a puppet. Is this really my home?"

"Yes. You always have a place here."

He looked out the window again. "I never want to be a Dominant again. I swear I will not ever be in an army, ever. I am laying down my sword for the rest of my days."

"You are free now."

He stood, opened his saddle bag and extracted a worn out Union uniform, personal linen, gloves, and brushes, which he placed in his new wardrobe. "Mayhap I will find my mate someday." He took off his Doughboy jacket, leather puttees and boots.

"Perhaps. I hope so."

The country felt the grip of war for some years, but we lived peacefully. We never heard anything of Maria. Jasper wore cowboy boots, dungarees, knitted vests and striped shirts. He bought a guitar. He developed an interest in reading history books, although, to my amusement, he read the funny papers avidly. Hunting remained unpleasant for him but he learned to snap the neck of his victims when they were unaware, and so reduced the emotional toll that killing humans wrought upon him. He assured me he was content, but over the years as he watched Charlotte and I live in bliss, he grew restless. In 1947, El Corazón passed away. Jasper announced his intention to "wander for a spell," saddled up Goofy and left us –although he left most of his belongings in his room. He mailed cramped letters penned on bawdy cartoon postcards and telephoned us when he had the opportunity.

One fine spring evening in 1948, sweet laughter came into the parlor upon the breeze. Charlotte and I sat up and sniffed the air as a horse trotted up our lane. My mate threw open the front door before Jasper could even finish knocking. I clasped his hand and shook it fiercely.

"Look at you!" I said fondly. "You, sir, are a sight for sore eyes!"

Beside him was a tiny girl with shoulder-length raven hair that flipped up at the bottom. She wore a stylish linen dress with a jacket, pink shoes and a smile that stretched from ear-to-ear.

"Hello! I've been waiting years to meet you! I'm Alice! And you're Peter and Charlotte Mitchell and I love you already!" She hurled herself into Charlotte's arms while I pulled Jasper into mine. Within moments, all of us were laughing.

At first we had questions about her golden eyes. Later, we questioned her more when they turned black, for Alice could See the future. Jasper and Alice stayed with us for some months before one such vision occurred.

"Lissy, what is it?" Jasper asked.

"The Cullens! They're in New Haven, Connecticut." She leaped up and hopped into her shoes. "Isn't that a wonderful name for a city? We have to go, Jazzy. They're so close."

None of us could truly understand her attachment to this fairy tale family, but we knew enough of the accuracy of her visions not to question her.

Jasper smiled gently. "Well, I guess we had better get a move on."

Alice tugged on his arm. "Come on, we need to rent a plane!"

I waved him away. "Go! Just go. We'll look after Goofy and Clarabelle for you."

"You sure you won't come with us?" Jasper asked.

I wrinkled my nose. "And eat deer? I don't think so. But you just go ahead and enjoy yourself."

Alice threw her arms around me, hopped up and kissed me on the cheek. "Thanks, Peter! See you soon!"

"All right, safe journey, Alice."

And they both lived happily ever after. Well, with a few bumps. But that's another story.