The best/worst thing about writing WWQ is that many of these characters come with very little baggage. There's not a lot of landmark moments for these guys and gals, so it leaves you a lot of wiggle room for story writing...but it also means that there's TONS of things that are completely unknown about them, and you're left to figure out who these people are (see the intro I wrote for my Nighthawk story for an example). Then you get somebody like Max Mercury, whose un-chronicled history actually defines the character. We know little bits, just snippets, but no real substance -- it's even debatable that "Max Crandall" is his real name -- and he seems bound and determined to keep us all in the dark. But we do know for sure that he was born in the early 1800s and that he got his powers from a Blackfoot shaman...which means his beginnings are smack-dab in the middle of my territory, and no way am I gonna pass up adding such a unique character to the WWQ roster.

So the story here is an exercise in reverse-engineering: trying to figure out what "the Zen master of the Speed Force" was like when he was just a regular guy, and what sorts of things would lead him to play his life so close to the vest centuries later. It's also the beginning to a much larger tale that will play out for many years to come in DC2, in ways you can't imagine. If you stick around, I promise you won't be disappointed.

Disclaimer: All characters in this story are owned by DC Comics.

Continuity: Originally posted on the DC2 fanfiction site as Weird Western Quarterly #8-9. For a link, please click on the homepage listed under my profile.


Part 1: Secrets


It all started with a bolt of lightning.

The storm had hung over Manchester for most of the day, rumbling at the townsfolk below and occasionally spitting a bit of drizzle on them. It wasn't until right around suppertime that those gray clouds went all the way black, and it started a-rainin' and a-hailin' and a-thunderin' like the Judgment Day had come. The Maxwell place lay over on the edge of town, so it was spared the full brunt of the storm's fury, but one lightning bolt got a mite adventurous and came by for a visit, crashing smack dab into the little barn out back and setting it ablaze quick as a wink. Despite the danger that another lightning strike could come down, Chris Maxwell ran out into the storm, his father Elias right behind. The two of them rushed to the barn and threw the doors wide, then set about getting the horses and whatever else out before the whole structure went up.

Luckily for the Maxwells, the rain managed to keep the fire from spreading beyond the barn, which smoldered on for most of the evening -- by sunup the next day, all that remained was blackened timbers and charred debris. Though they didn't expect to find much, Chris and his father spent the day combing through the remains to see if anything was salvageable. They turned up some metal tools, and more than a few nails, then Chris uncovered something that took him quite by surprise: an old trunk, scorched by the flames but otherwise intact. He called out to Elias, who was just as surprised by the trunk's appearance as his son. "Well, I'll be...I'd forgotten all about this," he said as he knelt down beside it.

"What is it?" The young man couldn't recall ever seeing the trunk before.

"This belonged to your sister," Elias replied, wiping ash from the cracked leather surface. "We'd stowed it and some other things of hers in the barn after we moved here. We couldn't bear to part with them just yet, but there was no room for it all in the house."

"This was Christina's?" His whole life, Chris had been told about his older sister, who had died not long before he was born. She'd been rather young when she passed away, only fifteen, and his parents had often commented over the years on how much he resembled her -- they had the same dark brown hair, the same sort of laugh -- they'd even named him after Christina, in a way. Sometimes he felt like he had a twin, unmet and unseen, who would someday turn up and properly introduce herself. And now there was a part of her right here before him, something more than just an oft-told story. Chris put his hands on his knees and looked at the trunk, saying, "Do you think anything inside survived?"

"I don't know, let's see." He flipped the latches and pulled the lid open, revealing piles of scorched garments. "Looks like all that heat baked everything inside." Elias pushed his hand through the garments to see if anything beneath was intact, then he let the lid fall shut, saying, "It's all ruined." The man stood up and knocked ash off his trousers, then pulled out a pocket watch from his vest. "Damn, it's almost noon," he muttered. "I've got to get cleaned up and head over to Old Man Foster's place."

"I thought you'd finished your business with him last week?" Chris asked.

"I did...then he changed his mind again. He wants to rewrite the whole damn will over." Elias gave him a sideways glance, smiling. "These are the sort of things you'll have to look forward to once your schooling's done."

The young man nodded, but didn't smile back. Elias Maxwell was a born lawyer, and he insisted that his son follow in his footsteps. Chris would be leaving home in a few months to attend his father's alma mater and earn a law degree of his own, though his heart most certainly wasn't in it. He wasn't rightly sure what he wanted to do with his life, but after clerking in his father's office for the past couple years, he knew that a lifetime of drawing up documents and arguing legal precedents wasn't for him.

Unfortunately, he had yet to think of a way to tell his father that.

Elias gestured to the debris around them, saying, "I want you to go over to Henderson's Livery and borrow a wagon so you can haul all this stuff off while I'm gone. Just take it on over to the ravine and dump it in."

"What about the trunk?"

"Take that over, too. There's nothing left in there worth keeping." The man started to head for the house, then stopped and added, "Don't tell your mother, it might upset her."

Chris did as his father ordered, and spent a good part of the afternoon tossing timbers into the wagon and working up a good sweat. He kept hesitating whenever he passed the trunk, though. It just didn't seem right to throw it away like all the other debris, even though it was obviously worthless now. He knew it was strange that he felt sentimentality over someone he'd never actually known, but that was the best way to describe it. Eventually, the time came to add it onto the wagon and cart it away. As he picked it up, however, he began to feel the bottom give out. "Aw no...just hold together for another minute," Chris pleaded as he rushed to the wagon, but the trunk soon split open, spilling the charred contents everywhere.

He cursed under his breath, glaring at the mess at his feet, then knelt down in the midst of it as he caught sight of a small leather-bound book. That's strange, he thought, I didn't see that in there before. He picked it up and carefully turned it over in his hands. The cover was illegible, and the edges of the pages were blackened, but when he opened it, he found that most of the interior had survived the fire fairly well, considering how brittle with age the book was. It looks like a diary, Chris thought as he examined the handwritten pages. He couldn't believe the luck: after nearly two decades of sitting in an old trunk, plus going through a fire, his sister's diary had managed to survive. He looked over the remains of the trunk once more, hoping to discover some other trinkets, but the diary was the only thing worth salvaging. How'd we miss it the first time, though? he wondered, then saw that there appeared to have been a false bottom on the trunk -- nothing elaborate, just a thin piece of wood covered with the same fabric as the rest of the trunk's lining -- when the bottom gave out, the diary tumbled out of its hiding spot.

Pulling a handkerchief out of his back pocket, Chris wrapped up the diary, then tucked it under the front porch -- after he'd finished cleaning up the debris, he'd retrieve it and give it a proper look-over. As he began to steer the horse-drawn wagon towards the ravine, he couldn't help but smile a little: after eighteen years, he was finally going to meet his sister...albeit in a rather unconventional manner.

It was past sundown by the time Chris got a chance to examine the diary in detail. Getting it into the house had been no problem, but he just couldn't find a good excuse to get himself away from his parents after supper -- his father wanted to talk about the university, and which teachers had been there during his father's school days that Chris should look up, while his mother continued to fuss over the notion of her beloved son leaving home for the first time. He finally fended them off by insisting how tired he was after all that hard work today (not completely a lie), and that he wanted nothing more than to turn in. Once he was sure that they wouldn't disturb him up in his room, he lit a small lamp on his desk and pulled out the diary.

The delicateness of the pages worried him, so he handled them as little as possible, using just enough pressure to hold the book open as it lay on the desk. The first dozen or so pages were a loss, but he soon reached a section that was fairly intact:

Feb. 23 - I saw the Fennimores' new farmhand again today. A very

handsome young man, though I still find him a bit coarse. He was better

at keeping his tongue civil today, however, and even attempted small talk.

Mother shooed him away the moment she saw us conversing. Such a

shame, as I was rather enjoying his company.

"Sounds like you were a little bit sweet on him, Sis," Chris said under his breath. He wondered what year the entry was from -- he thought he'd seen "1818" written on one of the previous pages, which would make Christina about fourteen at the time she wrote it, but it was too badly damaged to be certain. To be sure, it had to be back when his family was living in Hancock, about thirty miles away -- he'd only been an infant when his parents had moved to Manchester, but he knew his sister had already passed on by then. He read further on, skimming entries that contained nothing but idle gossip about people he'd never heard of, until he came to a partially-burned page:

...meadow. I thought for sure someone would come across us, but Jim

insisted that no one knew we were out there. When we reached the spot

he'd picked out, I found a fine picnic lunch awaiting us, all laid out on a

blanket. I must admit, his thoughtfulness took me by surprise! We ate and

talked for what seemed like the whole afternoon, and Jim acted like a

perfect gentleman throughout, asking for only a few kisses to tide him over.

I almost wish he wouldn't be so gentlemanly, but I understand his hesitation,

what with the way Father had...

And that was it, the rest of the entry having gone up in smoke. Chris supposed it was for the best, anyways: he felt like a peeping tom after reading that. I wonder if this 'Jim' fella is the farmhand she was talking about earlier? he thought. The entry itself was undated, but it came not long after a more mundane one labeled for June the fifth, so he assumed it must be in the same year as the first one he'd read. He continued on, finding more and more mentions of Jim, all of them overflowing with love and longing -- again, that peeping tom feeling came over him, so he tried not to linger. There were mentions here and there about their parents, especially their father, who Christina made out to be almost livid over the whole affair. It seemed to fit with how the man had acted over the years as Chris grew up: appearances were very important to Elias, in both his legal profession and his family life, and Chris was sure that the idea of his little girl being seen with a farmhand must have incensed him. It was sad, though, to be reading about how much in love his sister was, knowing that she'd never live to really see it blossom. Then he came across an entry that just about knocked the wind out of him:

Oct. 16 - I cannot deny it anymore. I'd thought it was just some minor

malady, but after Father dragged me to the doctor today, there is no doubt:

I am going to have a baby. In my heart, I'm overcome with joy at the

thought of bearing Jim's child, but my mind is too clouded by fear brought

on by how Father is reacting. I cannot bring myself to write down the

horrid things that he has said, nor can I even find solace in Jim's arms, for

Father tried to have him arrested and he had to flee town. I imagine him

out there now, alone and in danger simply because he loves me. I can only

pray that the Good Lord will keep him safe until we are together again.

"A baby?" Chris whispered. Of all the things his parents had told him about Christina, they'd certainly never mentioned anything about her being pregnant before she died. He didn't know why, but a cold chill started racing up his spine at the thought of it. Not caring now if he wrecked the already-damaged pages, he started flipping ahead, reading through one entry after the next as fast as he could. The dates became rather sporadic, with sometimes a full week passing before his sister made another entry -- they mostly consisted of her alternately pining away for Jim and pleading for understanding from their father. It was heartbreaking to read, but Chris kept on going, until he finally reached the last entry:

May 19 - Today I received a glimmer of hope, the first I've had in months.

Jim sent me a letter via a new friend of his, along with a small sum of

money. He says that he's made his way into the wilds of the northwest, and

that his friend, a gentleman by the name of Tom Hawkins, has found him

work as a trapper and guide. Mr. Hawkins has even kindly offered to share

his home with us, for Jim wishes me to join him out on the frontier. I have

heard tales of how rough it is out in the untamed territories, especially for a

young woman, but Jim assures me that I'll be perfectly safe. He says that

Echo Valley is a beautiful, peaceful place, a virtual Eden, and that our child

will grow up strong and proud there. Oh, how I wish I could be there now!

But I have felt so ill lately that I am afraid to begin the journey. Once the

baby comes, I will...

Just as before, the entry came to an abrupt halt -- the diary's remaining pages had fallen to ash, leaving his sister's final thoughts unknown. Chris sat back in his chair, staring at the book as it lay in the pool of lamplight, and ruminated on what he'd just read. Why didn't Mother or Father ever tell me about this? Did they think it might upset me? he thought. On the few occasions when his parents had broached the subject of Christina's actual death, the most they would tell him was that she died after a long illness, nothing more. Perhaps she died in childbirth, and the baby...oh my God...

He leaned over the book once again and reread the date of the last entry. If he was correct in his earlier assumption that the diary had been started in 1818, then this meant that the final entry had been written on May nineteenth, 1819...two days before Chris himself had been born. ", that can't be right..." he said to himself, shaking his head as he did so. "You messed up on the dates somewhere, you're can't be..." He got up from his chair and paced over to the window -- his room was on the second floor, and it afforded him a view of where the barn had been, now just a rectangular black stain in the moonlit yard. He leaned his head against the window frame and stared down at it as he tried to reason his way out of the conundrum, but it soon proved impossible, especially when he realized that, if he did have the years in the diary correct, Christina had not once mentioned their mother being pregnant -- considering her own delicate condition, such a fact would not likely go unnoted.

"But you've seen your own birth certificate," he told himself, grasping at straws. "Right there in black and white: Christopher Wade Maxwell, born to Elias and Ruth Maxwell..." Then it occurred to him that, with his father's legal expertise, he could probably alter such a document very easily, assuming that he hadn't just bribed the doctor outright when Chris had been born. With a shuddering sigh, he put his hands over his face -- he was exhausted, and not just from the late hour. He needed to sleep on this, just push it to one side of his brain and let it sit there until morning.

And then...and then he'd have to find a way to speak with his parents about this.

Three days came and went before Chris found the strength within himself to broach the subject. It was more than a matter of courage, however: like many children, he'd been taught from a young age to not question his elders, and that lesson remained in his mind as he approached adulthood. To call into doubt something as monumental as this was almost unthinkable. But he had to do it, at the very least so he could once again sleep through the night and not lay awake staring at the ceiling, wondering "What if?"

He waited until after supper, when his parents had retired to the sitting room -- they sat opposite each other before the lit fireplace, his mother working on her sewing and his father perusing a copy of the Manchester Courier. Chris stood in the doorway, looking at the serene little picture they presented, then he suddenly recalled an incident from when he was eight years old: him standing on a thick tree branch hanging over the rapid currents of the Warrior River, while his friends stood safely on the bank and dared him to jump in. His stomach had been in knots from fear, just as it was now, but in the end he'd jumped...and now the time had come to jump again. "Father, could I...I need to talk to both of you," he said haltingly.

They both laid aside what they were doing, Elias saying, "Of course, son. What's on your mind?"

He took a deep breath, thinking once again of jumping in the river, and said, "Remember the other day, when we were cleaning up what was left of the barn, and we...we found the trunk...Christina's trunk..."

Ruth's eyes widened a little, and she looked to her husband. "You didn't tell me you found..."

"It was wrecked," he replied. "There was nothing left worth saving, and I didn't want to bother you with it."

"But there was something left." Chris stepped fully into the room and pulled the diary out from behind his back. "I found'd been hidden in the bottom, and I found it when the trunk fell apart. It got damaged pretty bad, but there was enough left that I...I read it. I read it and I have to know."

"You have to know what?" Elias asked him coldly.

"Before she died, Christina wrote that she was going to have a baby...and the last intact entry in here was dated two days before I was born." Chris was amazed at the calmness of his own voice when he said, "Now I know how insane it sounds, but please...please tell me: was Christina really my mother?"

The room was deathly silent. Then, slowly, Ruth got up from her chair and approached Chris with tears in her eyes. She placed her hands on either side of his face for a moment, gazing up at him, then lay her head on his shoulder and began crying in earnest. He wrapped his arms around her, not knowing what else to do, and said, "I'm sorry, Mother, I'm sorry, but after reading the diary, I thought..."

"We never should have lied to you," Ruth said quietly, still crying.

Chris's back immediately stiffened. He pulled away and looked down at her, his own eyes wide now as he struggled to find words, but all that came out of his mouth was, "Why?"

"Because Jim Crandall was nothing but no-account white trash," Elias said, still sitting in his chair. He glared at the young man, unmoving, the light from the fireplace reflecting off his spectacles -- it made his eyes appear to be filled with flame, and judging by his tone of voice, they may as well have been. "He was a drifter with no money, no prospects, and absolutely nothing to offer a woman except his own sick lusts. He raped our only daughter, and when consequences came from it, he ran off like a coward."

"He ran because you wanted him in jail," Chris replied as he held up the diary. "They loved each other, and he was willing to support her, but you..."

"Support her? Are you talking about that ridiculous offer he made to have her live out in the damned wilderness with some crazy mountain man and a bunch of Indians?" Elias got up and stormed over to where the young man stood. "Christina was just a little girl, so maybe to her it sounded like a fine idea, but I knew better, and I beat that notion out of her head right quick."

" didn't..." But he could tell by the way his, his grandmother tensed up as Elias talked that the man meant what he said in the literal sense. "You beat her...your own pregnant daughter...that's why she gave birth so soon after getting that letter, isn't it? She told you about it, and you beat her so hard she went into labor."

"It's all Crandall's fault, he turned her against us. Her death is on his hands, not mine, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let him taint another generation of this family." He snatched the diary out of Chris's hand and turned towards the fireplace.

Chris realized what was coming, and tried to grab it back, crying out, "No, for God's sake, don't..." But Elias pushed him away, then threw the diary into the fire -- the already-damaged book went up in a flash. "You had no right to do that!" he said, and made to strike him, but the man caught his fist and struck Chris himself, slapping him hard across the face.

"I had every right," Elias told him. "I took responsibility for you, I raised you, I treated you as my own son, and how do you repay all that? By taking the side of a man you've never even met!" He struck him again, bloodying the young man's nose. Chris was too stunned by the act to even block him -- Elias hadn't laid a hand on him since he was six years old.

"Elias, please, stop hurting him," Ruth begged. "He didn't know. We should have told him..."

"After what that bastard did to our daughter?" he snapped at her. "We took Chris away from Hancock to keep him from ever finding out about all this. I made sacrifices, I gave up my practice..."

"And you lied to me my entire life!" Chris broke free of Elias's grip and glared at the man. "You raised me to believe in truth and the law and in doing what was right, but all the while you've been manipulating just what 'the truth' really is. You're nothing but a hypocrite."

"How dare you talk to me like that! I'm your father..."

"No, you're not!" He was surprised at how easily those words came out of his mouth, but it was the truth -- at the moment, it was one of the few things about his life that he knew to be the truth. "My real father's out there somewhere, probably wondering what ever became of the child he helped create, but thanks to you, he'll never know. You keep saying that Jim Crandall took your daughter away from you, but you don't seem very concerned that you took me away from him."

"Are you saying that you'd rather be the son of some illiterate white trash than a member of a respectable family?" Elias asked incredulously.

"I am the son of 'white trash', as you keep calling him. And as far as this family being respectable goes...I think I lost all respect for you about five minutes ago."

The man's hand came up once more, ready to strike, but he never carried through. Instead, he slowly lowered it, saying to Chris, "Get out."


"I said 'Get out'." Elias took hold of Chris's shirt collar and began to drag him out of the sitting room. "I want you out of this house. Right now. If you don't want to be a part of this family anymore, then you can't live under this roof."

"Let go of me!" Chris tried to twist free, but only managed to rip his shirt. "You can't just toss me out like this!"

"I most certainly can. I gave you more than your so-called 'real father' ever could have, and you don't seem to appreciate it one I think it's time you learned what it's like to not have such things." Elias opened the front door and pushed Chris down the porch steps. "You've brought all this on yourself, you know," the man said as he looked down on him from the porch, the sounds of Ruth's sobbing echoing out the open door. "I tried to mold you into a decent member of society, but it looks like that Crandall blood in you runs too deep. It makes you disrespectful, rebellious, and I won't have that." He turned and walked back inside, pausing at the threshold to say over his shoulder, "While you're sleeping out in the woods tonight, I want you to think really hard about who's been actually been a father to you all this time: myself, or a stranger who abandoned you the moment he found out you existed." And with that, he slammed the door on the young man, cutting off Ruth's pleas to her husband to let the poor boy back into the house.

Chris stood at the foot of the steps, staring at the closed door and fighting the urge to race up there and begin pounding on it. He knew there was no way Elias would let him back inside the house tonight, the man was far too angry to listen to him right now. He'd have to find a place to pass the night away and wait until tomorrow.

And then what? Reasoning with him would probably do no good: Elias Maxwell was a stubborn man who believed he'd been doing the right thing for eighteen years, and Chris doubted that he could shake that belief. So that left him little choice but to bow to the man's wishes and play the obedient son, just as he'd unknowingly been doing his entire life. In a flash, Chris could see the rest of his days spooling out in front of him: spending years at a school he didn't wish to attend, then countless more after that at a legal job he didn't want, probably married to a woman that Elias already had picked out for him, and all the while he'd have to smile and be polite and pretend that everything was perfect, that this whole ugly incident had never happened...just as Ruth had been having to do all this time, even though she obviously wasn't in favor of it.

Chris sat down on the ground beside the porch, the setting sun casting a deep, black shadow of the house over him -- it matched his mood perfectly. Why, Lord? he thought as he tried to wipe away the blood that collected on his upper lip. Why did you let me find that diary? Why couldn't you have let me live my life without knowing all this? What good is it for me to know if I can't do anything about it?

But there was something he could do, he realized, the one thing that Elias had been so desperate to prevent: he could find his real father. The diary was gone, but Chris remembered well the name of the man who'd helped his father, and the place where he lived. It was a long shot, terribly long, but if he tracked his father down, perhaps then he would finally learn what really happened all those years ago. Even if what Elias said was true, even if Jim Crandall wanted absolutely nothing to do with him, at least he'd be able to hear it from the man's own lips.

He got up and walked across the yard, towards the road that would lead him into Manchester proper -- they'd been boarding their horses at the livery since the barn burned down, and he needed to get there before Mr. Henderson turned in for the night. As he reached the road, he turned back and looked for a long time at the place he'd called home his whole life. Everything that he was had been defined by what he'd experienced within those walls...but now, he wasn't even sure who that person really was. But I'm going to find out, he thought. I don't care how long it takes, or how far I have to go, I'm going to find out what's been kept from me all this time.

With nothing more than the clothes on his back, Chris Maxwell set off down the road to Manchester, repeating three things over and over in his mind until he was sure he'd never forget them:

Jim Crandall.

Tom Hawkins.

Echo Valley.

The snowdrifts were piling high against the collection of buildings that made up the trading post known as Howling Forks. The place got rather inhospitable that time of year, and winter hadn't even fully set in yet, but the weather didn't stop some of the trappers and hunters in the area from putting away their solitary habits for one night to bask in a little Christmas cheer with their fellow man. Songs of both a traditional and bawdy variety sounded off the walls as burly men wrapped in animal furs and woolen blankets gathered 'round the pot-bellied stove in the main building, upon which a coffee pot filled with apple brandy was warming. This far deep into the wilderness, Howling Forks was the closest one could get to civilization.

The door opened, admitting two heavily-bundled figures along with an inordinate amount of snowflakes. The men furthest from the stove protested against the sudden burst of icy air, and continued to do so for a minute after the door shut. "Kubert, you old buzzard!" the larger of the two newcomers shouted to the elderly man who ran the post. "Ain't you dead yet?"

"Not 'til you pay me back that ten dollars I loaned you," Kubert answered, then walked over and clapped the man on the back. "Merry Christmas, MacHenry. It's good to see you." He then peered over at the second figure still standing by the door, saying, "What's that skinny thing behind you? Did you up an' get yourself a squaw?"

"Naw, this here's some extra baggage I picked up in Fort Collins." He turned and yelled, "Maxwell! Ain't you got no manners? Get on over here an' say hello."

Slowly, Chris Maxwell walked to where the two men stood, peeling off the scarf wrapped around his face. The young man's stubbly cheeks looked sunken in, and he had dark circles under his eyes. His teeth chattered uncontrollably as he tried to talk. "G-guh-good evening, sir."

"Boy, you look like you're about done in," Kubert said. "You feel okay?"

"I'm f-f-fine, sir. J-just c-c-c-c-cold."

"I'll say." Though he didn't look frostbitten yet, the young man's face had a dangerously-pale pallor. "You're new to these parts, ain't ya?" Chris nodded, and Kubert let out a chuckle. "Figured as much. Don't worry, son, if'n you can make it through your first winter up here, you'll do just fine." He then called out to the men huddled around the stove, "Hey, make a little room for this fella, give him a chance to thaw out."

Some of the men grumbled, then one of them got up and offered Chris his stool. The young man peeled the mittens off his stiff fingers and held them out towards the cast iron, glad to feel real warmth for the first time since leaving the fort. It seemed like he'd been frozen to the core for months now, ever since he made his way into the northern territories -- winter in Alabama was nothing like this, that was for sure. There were days when it got so bad, he wished he'd never left home on this crazy quest, but the hope of finding his father kept driving him on from one cavalry fort or outpost to the next, ever deeper into the wild country. The leads he followed were slim at best: no one he talked to had heard of Echo Valley, and the name of Jim Crandall jogged very few memories. Luckily, Tom Hawkins was rather well-known...but going by what he heard, there appeared to be two people by that name running about. Father and son, ironically. Most folks seemed to agree that both made their home in this area, just a few hundred miles south of the Canadian territories, so Chris had begged and bargained with every trapper he came across, slowly making his way to Howling Forks and, he hoped, the answers he was searching for.

One of the older men sitting nearby picked up the brandy-filled coffee pot, then topped off a tin cup and passed it to Chris, saying, "'Ere ye go, that'll chase the chill away." Chris wasn't much of a drinker, but he took a sip now and then to be polite -- it left a warm trail in his throat all the way down to his gut.

Another man gave him a once-over, then said, "What business does a boy like you got up here, anyhow? You obviously ain't built to handle it."

"He said he's lookin' for Tom Hawkins and his son," MacHenry answered, taking a cup of brandy himself. "Something 'bout a man named Crandall."

"Well, you're bit late, if'n you want the elder Hawkins," Kubert said. "Old man passed on...what, eight, ten years ago?"

"Roundabout," one of the trappers said. "Good man, he was. Fair an' honest, an' one Hell of a scrapper if'n he thought the cause was right. His boy's the same way."

"Y-you know him?" Chris asked the trapper -- he'd finally thawed out enough that his teeth had stopped chattering so much. "Do you know where he is? Do you know about Echo Valley?"

"Sure do...but I can't take you there."

"Why not? I've got money. Not a lot, but whatever you want..."

"It ain't about money, son. Echo Valley's off-limits to white folks." He waved a hand westward. "It's supposed to be somewhere off thataway, past Table Mountain, but I've been up in that range at least a half-dozen times and ain't never come across it. Them Injuns got it well hid, that's all I can say."

"I hear-tell they got some sort of Injun magic over the place, to keep the white folks out," one man added. "If'n you try an' find it alone, you'll wander around up there 'til you die."

"You're pulling my leg," Chris said to them with a frown. "There's no such thing as magic."

"Maybe there is, an' maybe there ain't," Kubert said, "but either way, there ain't no one here that'll take you to Echo Valley. You're welcome to hang out here 'til somebody from the valley comes 'round, though."

"How long might that be?"

"Can't say. Those folk tend to stick close to home when winter sets in. Might not see any of 'em 'til springtime."

Chris hung his head low -- in the middle of this frozen waste, springtime seemed like a far-off dream. The young man excused himself and got up from his place at the stove, wandering off to an unoccupied spot in the trading post while the conversation turned to other things. After all the miles he'd traveled, he couldn't believe that he'd hit a wall so close to his destination. Bad enough to discover that one of the people he was searching for was long dead, but for a seasoned group of mountain men to insist that the only thing keeping him from Echo Valley was magic? Good Lord, this was the 19th Century! Hadn't logic and reason stamped out such superstitious notions by now? He sat down on a barrel near the back of the room, sipping his brandy and pondering the possibility of heading up into the mountains himself, their warnings be damned. He soon dismissed it as foolish: despite all the months he'd spent out on the frontier, Chris's survival skills were still rather minimal, and he most certainly didn't have the physical stamina to last more than a few hours alone in that bitter cold.

There was a sound behind him of boots scraping against the wooden floorboards. He turned and saw one of the trappers standing behind him, a rather large man in a coat made from a bear's pelt, the thick black beard on his face blending in with the fur. "You want to get to ze valley zat badly, boy?" he asked Chris in a heavy French accent.

"Maybe," Chris answered, suddenly wary. "What's it to you?"

The man grinned. "If zat is what you want, I can provide. I am very good tracker, I know zis area very well. Echo Valley...zis is no problem at all."

"If it's no problem, then why didn't you say so before?"

"For I am, how you say, keeping secret. Ze Indians, zey trust Big Pierre," he said, indicating himself, "but zey no trust everyone. So, zey tell me to keep secret. But you have need to find zem très prompt...very quick, no?"

"The quicker, the better. I've already wasted months just trying to get here, and the idea of just sitting around until somebody shows up..."

"Ah, but someone has shown!" He thumped a hand against his massive chest. "I take you zere tomorrow, deliver you like Père Noël down ze cheminée. Monsieur Hawkins be très glad to see Big Pierre, just as glad as you are now, eh?"

"More than you could know." Chris got off the barrel and shook the big man's hand, saying, "Thank you so much, this is probably the best Christmas present I've had in a long time."

Big Pierre's grin widened a little more. "Ze pleasure is all mine, mon ami."

They set off before dawn, while many of the other men were still sleeping off their hangovers in the surrounding buildings. Chris was rather groggy himself, but Big Pierre insisted that they'd need all the daylight they could for the journey. "It take many hours to go up into ze mountains," he explained as their horses crunched through the snow. "We do not want to be up zere at night, it get très froid. Besides, ze sooner we go, the sooner we get to Echo Valley, no?"

Chris certainly couldn't argue with that. So he kept his complaints to a minimum as the bitter winds cut through all the layers of clothing he'd donned, chilling him so badly that he found it hard to breathe sometimes. He could even feel his horse stiffening up a little, but the cold didn't appear to affect Big Pierre at all. In fact, he seemed to thrive in it, driving his mount forward with enthusiasm as they made their way into the foothills surrounding Table Mountain. The climb got steeper as they began to move up the mountainside proper, the path narrowing so that they had to ride single-file. "How far do we have to go yet?" Chris asked after a few hours, his eyes occasionally darting from the sheer column of rock that towered over them on the right to the equally-sheer drop off the path on their left.

"Not too far, mon ami. Ze plateau is coming soon, zen we shall be getting to business." Chris didn't understand what Big Pierre was referring to, but then again, the man's English was pretty fractured, so he didn't think much about it.

By noontime, they'd finally reached the broad, flat region of rock that gave Table Mountain its name. It spread out for at least a mile in a vague crescent shape, its snow-covered expanse broken up here and there by boulders and stunted trees. Chris slowed his horse to a stop and took it all in with wide eyes, his discomfort over the cold forgotten. Meanwhile, Big Pierre rode on, stopping his own mount at one of the nearby boulders. He swept his hand over it, wiping away caked-up snow, then yelled at Chris, "Boy! You come here!" The young man did as he was told, sidling up to Big Pierre, who was in the process of dismounting, and gestured to Chris to do the same. "You see zis, boy? You see ze marks?" he asked, pointing at the clear spot on the boulder. Someone had carved a series of lines and dots into the rock, some of which appeared to have colors embedded into them. A whirl of red danced around three blue specks, yellow daggers intersected with a thick white stripe...they looked random at first, but the longer Chris gazed upon them, the more the designs seemed to say something, but he couldn't fathom what it was. To be sure, they said something to Big Pierre. "We are close, mon ami," he told him. "I have found ze signs all over ze mountain range, but here zere are ze most...Echo Valley must be close to here."

"'Must be'? But I thought you said you knew..." Chris was cut off mid-sentence when Big Pierre grabbed him by the arm and began to pull him to the edge of the plateau. Beyond was nothing but jagged, foreboding spires and dark depths -- it was as uninviting a landscape as one could imagine.

"Look out zere, boy," Big Pierre said, positioning Chris close to the edge. "Do you see zem? Do you see ze valley?"

"What are you talking about? There's nothing there, just rocks."

"Look closer." Big Pierre stood behind Chris and put a hand on the young man's shoulder, his fingers digging in deep. "I know zey are down zere, laughing at me, but I cannot see zem. Zey tink zat I will just give up and go away, but no, mon ami, I find ways in. Like you."

Chris suddenly felt a chill that had nothing to do with the cold weather. "W-what's that supposed to mean?"

"If a boy from as far away as you knows of Monsieur Hawkins and ze valley, zen he must know about you as well, no? Perhaps he is waiting zere for you right now...but he does not know zat Big Pierre is with you. Not yet." The man's other hand suddenly came into view, holding a large hunting knife. "He will not hide from me any longer, not if he wants you to live."

Dear God, I've been following a madman, Chris thought. He knew he had to fight somehow, but all his attention was fixed on the blade as the winter sun glinted off of it. As if from as distance, he heard Big Pierre tell him to start walking towards a small footpath that descended into the inhospitable-looking area below them, saying that they were going to walk over every inch of this mountain range until someone from Echo Valley appeared. The man didn't say what would happen if no one appeared, but he didn't have to. I'm going to die up here, he thought as he tried to get his legs to move. I'm going to die, and no one will ever find my body, because they're all too superstitious to even come up here.

"Walk faster, boy!" Big Pierre smacked Chris on the back of his head. The young man stumbled on the icy ground and went down on one knee. That didn't help Big Pierre's attitude at all: he kicked Chris in the butt, yelling, "Why you stall, boy? You tink I am making joke here? Maybe I give you little cut now, so you know I am being serious." He took the tip of the knife and pressed it just below Chris's jawline, hard enough to send a few drops of hot blood trickling down the cold flesh of his neck.

That seemed to be all Chris needed to break free of his fear. He kicked out one of his legs, his bootheel colliding with Big Pierre's shin. The man grunted and tried to press the knife even further into Chris's neck, but the young man had thrown himself to the side, kicking out once more, only this time he aimed at the trapper's ample gut. As he staggered back, Chris got to his feet and ran over to where they'd left the horses, but Big Pierre was soon right after him, grabbing him by the back of his coat just as he managed to reach them. Chris latched on to one of the saddlebags, refusing to let go as the man pulled at him and slashed through layer after layer of clothing with his knife. Finally, the straps on the saddlebag gave way and Chris went flying back, various supplies falling to the ground with him. He lay on his back for a moment, stunned, then he saw Big Pierre standing over him, the knife already beginning to come down. In a panic, Chris took hold of a small camp shovel that had fallen from the saddlebag and swung it up at the trapper -- luckily for him, he managed to smack the knife from Big Pierre's hand, breaking the man's wrist in the process. A string of what Chris assumed were French profanities poured out of the trapper's mouth as he held the broken appendage to his chest. Chris sprung to his feet and took a few more swings at the man's head before Big Pierre fell over in the snow and lay still.

The young man dropped the shovel and stood there, his whole body shaking -- he hadn't wanted to kill the trapper, crazy as he may have been, but it looked to Chris like he'd done exactly that. It doesn't matter now, he told himself, you did what you had to do. Now, get on that horse and find a way off this mountain before you freeze to death. He slowly turned back towards the horses, shivering as the wind whipped through the tears in his coat -- judging by the sting on his back, it felt like the knife had cut more than clothing a few times. You'll be fine, don't worry about it, he thought as he tried to climb into the saddle...then let out a cry as Big Pierre grabbed him by the ankle and yanked him to the ground.

He found himself pinned down by the sheer bulk of the larger man, whose face hovered inches above his own as a pair of massive hands worked their way around his throat. "Je vous tuerai...vous tuerai..." the trapper spat out, blood dripping down from the gash in his head caused by the shovel. "Petite merde..."

Big Pierre's ramblings were soon drowned out by the heavy pounding of Chris's own blood in his ears as he struggled to draw breath. He tore at the man's arms with numb fingers, knowing that the action was futile -- his vision was already growing black from lack of oxygen. Stupid, the young man thought as consciousness began to leave him. What a stupid way to die.

By the time the gunshot rang out, Chris was too far gone to hear it.

The world was dark. Dark and cold. Chris didn't know how long he'd been there, but it seemed like forever. How had he gotten here? He thought he remembered another place, far away, where he'd been safe and warm and loved, but it was gone now. Everything was gone. Now it was only darkness.

He felt a warm breeze blow across his face. Such a strange sensation after being so cold for so long. Where had it come from? He turned his head, searching the dark, and saw a faint light in the distance, outlining the silhouette of a figure. It beckoned to him, and he reached out for it, not knowing who or what the figure was. As he did so, the light grew brighter, until the darkness evaporated and Chris found himself standing on an open plain. He could still feel the breeze blowing, stronger now, seeming to swirl around his body, and sometimes right through him, tingling as it did so. It didn't touch the tall grass surrounding him, though, nor did it stir the clouds in the vast blue sky above. He thought it odd for the wind to behave in such a manner, but it didn't frighten him. In fact, he rather enjoyed it, and laughed aloud as he stretched his arms out and let the tingling sensation envelop him, his hair blowing about in the breeze.

Then Chris saw the figure once more, standing at the top of the small hill before him. It was a man with sandy brown hair, dressed in the same rough attire as many of the trappers he'd seen on his travels. The sight of the man on the hill stirred something deep inside Chris, and all at once, it came back to him: the diary, the long journey, the fight on the mountaintop...and he suddenly knew who the man was.

"You're my father," Chris whispered, and the wind carried his words up the hill to the man, who smiled down at him. He then turned away from Chris and made his way down the far side of the hill. "Wait! Don't go!" The young man started after him, running over the hill with surprising speed, but he couldn't seem to catch up. Then I'll run faster, he thought, and pumped his legs even harder, the wind now screaming in his ears. It still wasn't enough, his father was still too far ahead, even though the man was only walking. "Why won't you wait for me?" Chris called out, but he was moving so fast now, the words were torn apart as they left his mouth. His father soon approached the crest of another hill, and Chris feared that, if the man reached the other side, he'd never see him again, so he poured on even more speed, until even the birds in the sky appeared to stand still.

Then his father abruptly stopped walking. Chris tried to slow down, but was no use: he flew past the man and headed straight over the other side of the hill. Just as he passed by, Chris saw the briefest glimpse of Jim Crandall's face -- he could see so much of his own face reflected in those features, but he was going far too fast to really take it all in. The next thing he knew, he was tumbling down the hill, out of control, his body pummeled against the ground until all the momentum he'd built up was finally spent. He lay sprawled out on the ground for a time, then the smell of greasy smoke reached his nostrils. Dazed, he picked up his head to have a look around, and what he saw made him blanch.

Before him were three white men, stripped to the waist and hung upside-down from long poles. They appeared to have been soldiers, judging by what was left of their clothes. Strange markings were carved into their pale skin, similar to the ones Chris had seen on the boulder, but these had an air of the sinister about them that the others didn't possess. Their bellies had also been flayed open and the contents pulled out -- Chris could see all the organs carefully arranged on the ground at the base of each pole. He clapped a hand over his mouth, fighting the urge to vomit as he climbed to his feet. Who would do such a thing? he wondered, then saw an even more grisly sight beyond: the smoldering remains of an Indian encampment, dead bodies of natives strewn everywhere. Chris staggered forward on numb legs, hoping to find at least one person still alive in this nightmare, but no one had been spared, not even the children. It was a senseless act of destruction, no meaning behind it whatsoever that he could see. He stopped before one of the tipis, staring at a design painted in red on the stitched hide: a simple zigzagging line, like a child's rendering of a lightning bolt turned sideways. Why did it hold his attention so? Why had such a horrible thing happened to these people? Why had his father led him here to witness this? WHY?

Something screeched in the air above him. He whirled around in time to see a large owl descending upon him with its talons extended. Chris staggered backwards into the tipi as the bird swooped down, tearing out his throat before he even had a chance to scream and...

He woke up, shaking and panting in terror over his vivid dream. It took a moment for Chris to realize that it had indeed been a dream, and once he'd reassured himself that no harm had befallen him, he was greeted with the new puzzlement over where he was. From what he could make out in the dim light of a nearby fire, he was laying inside a large tipi, numerous blankets and hides piled upon him for warmth. He thought he could hear someone humming, and when he propped himself up on one elbow, he saw a little Indian boy sitting on the other side of the fire, playing with some small wooden horses and men. After a moment, Chris recognized the tune the boy was humming: "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." Where in the world did an Indian learn a Christmas carol? he thought.

The boy soon looked up and, seeing that Chris was watching him, smiled and waved hello. Chris responded in kind, and the boy put aside his toys and got to his feet, walking over to the flap in the side of the tipi. "Wait," Chris started to say, but his throat hurt so badly, that was the only word he could get out. The boy didn't seem to notice as he exited the tipi, and Chris soon heard what he assumed was the boy calling out to someone once the flap fell shut again. I hope whoever he's talking to can speak English, he thought as he tried to get up -- his legs were stiff, and his back ached as much as his throat, but he felt well enough to stand. He was clad only in his trousers, and he pulled one of the blankets tight around his shoulders as he walked over to the flap himself. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw an old flintlock rifle propped against one of the tipi's support poles, with a powder horn and coonskin cap hanging from a peg above it -- Chris wondered if a weapon as old as that could even fire.

Bright sunlight greeted him as he poked his head outside. A cool breeze was blowing, making him wish he'd looked around for his shirt before stepping out. His discomfort was soon forgotten, though, as he took in the world around him. The tipi was situated not far from a large, sparkling lake, partly covered by ice. He could see other tipis standing at regular intervals all around the lake, as well as Indians moving about between them. Above it all stood Table Mountain, flanked on either side by its smaller brethren, which ringed the entire area. Chris stared hard at the mountaintop, amazed at how clearly he could pick out the boulders atop it even at this distance. It then occurred to him that he must now be standing in the same area he'd been looking down upon with Big Pierre...but he had not seen any lake from that high vantage point, and he'd certainly not seen any Indian encampment. As a matter of fact, he couldn't see any of the foreboding features down here that had been so evident from that plateau.

Before he could come up with a reasonable explanation, he saw two men approaching him. The first was dressed in dark clothes with a fringed buckskin jacket, and his dark hair had a pale blond streak running back from the crown of his head. The second, who appeared younger and was carrying the little boy on his hip, was dressed in more traditional Indian garb, but the similarity in their facial features marked them as related, to be sure. "Good morning! Glad to see you're finally awake," the first man called out with a smile. "Thought for sure you were gonna sleep on through 'til New Year's."

" long..." Chris managed to get out.

"'Bout two days. It was pretty touchy the first night, but after that, Uncle Wise Owl said you should pull though just fine." The first man extended his hand, saying, "By the way, I'm Tom Hawkins, but most folks just call me Hawk. And this fella toting the papoose is my brother Small Eagle...but if'n you want to tick him off, call him Edward." The second man muttered something and punched Hawk in the arm with his free hand.

"You're..." Even if his throat didn't ache so much, Chris wasn't sure he could have spoken: there were so many things he wanted to say all at once that the words in his head became jumbled together. Instead, he shook the man's hand numbly, staring at him like he'd never seen another human being before. After a few seconds, he realized that Hawk had said something else to him, but it hadn't registered. "What...what was that?" he croaked.

"Your name, son. I asked what your name was."

His name? What was his name? He gave his head a quick shake to clear it, then said, "I'm Chris Maxwell, I..." He stopped and rubbed his throat -- he wanted to continue, but it hurt too much to speak more than a few words at a time.

"Better take it slow," Small Eagle told him. "Big Pierre came close to crushing your windpipe. If'n we'd been a few seconds later getting within shooting range, you'd probably be dead."

"Have to talk," Chris replied, struggling with each word. "Come so far...need..." He punched his fist on his thigh in frustration -- he'd finally found someone who could give him the answers he needed, and he could barely make a sound! He locked his eyes on Hawk's, then said slowly, "Jim Crandall...need to find him. Please."

"Jim Crandall? I haven't heard that name since..." Hawk paused, then asked quietly, "You said your name was Maxwell?" Chris nodded, and the man glanced over at Small Eagle with a sigh. "Reckon you should send your boy off to play with the others," he told his brother.

Small Eagle agreed, setting the little boy down and speaking with him for a moment. The boy pulled on the leg of his father's breeches, obviously not wanting to leave, but Small Eagle gave him a swat on the butt and sent him on his way. He then gestured for the three of them to go back inside the tipi. "It's funny," he said to Chris as they settled cross-legged around the fire, "when I first saw you, I thought you looked familiar. You get the same feeling, Hawk?"

"That I did. Couldn't pin it down, but now that I know, it's real obvious." Hawk cocked an eyebrow, saying, "I take it you are Crandall's kid, am I right?"

Chris didn't have to answer, the look of relief on his face did all the talking.

"I can't believe it, you showing up like this after all these years," Small Eagle said as he propped his chin up on his hand. "I couldn't have been much older than ten when Crandall first came to the valley. I remember Dad and Hawk had gone down to the post on a supply trip, and I guess they'd saved him from getting his neck wrung by some trapper..."

"Ray Fredricks, that was the man," Hawk added. "He thought Crandall had been poaching from his traps, and since Crandall was new out here, nobody'd believe him when he said he was innocent. 'Cept Dad: he could always tell an honest man from a fake. Said he could feel it in his bones. So he took Crandall under his wing and carted him up here." Hawk paused, laughing. "I still remember the look on his face when we walked him into the valley: his eyes looked like they were gonna pop outta his head!"

Chris found himself laughing a little as well. It was a strange comfort to know that his father had run into similar difficulties during his first days on the frontier. That brought to mind something else, and he asked haltingly, "Big Pierre...why was he...mad at you?"

"Big Pierre was a loon," Hawk replied -- he was no longer laughing. "I ran into him years ago while I was traveling. He'd been playing 'guide' for unsuspecting folks traveling west and robbing them blind, just making off with their supplies in the middle of the night and stranding them in the wilderness. He had a gift for talking folks into believing anything, as you undoubtedly found out. I thought getting him sent to jail was enough, but I reckon he sweet-talked his way outta that too." He ran a hand through the blond streak in his hair. "Still trying to figure out where he heard 'bout Echo Valley -- we'd been watching him walk around the mountains for a couple months now, but since there was no way he could get in, we just ignored him. Never imagined he'd drag somebody else up here as a hostage."

Chris blinked. "You...watched him? For months? But how come he never found this place? And why couldn't I suh...couldn't s-see..." He started coughing and gasping for breath -- he'd pushed his injured throat too far, and now he was paying for it. Hawk got up and fetched a canteen from a corner of the tipi, and Chris gulped down the water in between coughs.

"I want you to sit quiet for a bit, son," Hawk said, putting a hand on Chris's shoulder. "Just sit quiet and listen while I tell you a story. A long time ago, long before Columbus got lost and ran his boat into America, there was an Indian by the name of Strong Bow. He was a warrior without a tribe -- some say his people had been wiped out by another tribe, but nobody knows for sure. What they do know is that he'd turned his back on his warrior ways in favor of peace, and walked the length and breadth of the land trying to spread that peace to every warring tribe that he could. Not everyone heard him proper, of course, but there were some that did, and they followed him as he walked, until one day there were so many folk following him that it was like he'd made his own tribe.

"Now Strong Bow, he didn't know what to do 'bout this, so he went off on his lonesome into a cave to pray to the spirits for guidance. He was only gone for a day, but they say when he got back, his black hair was starting to go a mite gray in places. He told the folk following him that the spirits had shown him a new tribe that was coming to this land...a white tribe that'd chew up everything in its path. But the spirits had also shown him a place where they could all live in peace and harmony while the white tribe washed over the rest of the land. And so he led them here, to Echo Valley, and he and a group of shamans laid their magic over every rock and tree and blade of grass and drop of water in this place, so that no person who wasn't of the valley could ever find it." Hawk pulled back from him and smirked. "And that's they way it's been 'round here ever since, and it don't matter whether you're a big, dumb, lying Frenchman or a skinny little greenhorn from Alabama: if'n the people of Echo Valley don't want you to see 'em, you ain't never gonna see 'em."

Though he didn't say anything, both men could read the look on Chris's face well enough to know what was on his mind. "I don't think he believes a word of it, big brother," Small Eagle said.

Hawk shrugged, saying, "Well, Crandall didn't believe it straight off neither, remember? Kept asking Dad what the trick was. But he got the hang of it after a bit, and I reckon that Maxwell here will get it before long, too."

Chris took another swallow of water before trying to talk again. "Never mind...the story. Where's Crandall now? Where's my father?"

Hawk sighed and glanced over at his brother like he'd done earlier. "I'm sorry to tell you this, son, but...Jim Crandall's dead, 'bout sixteen years now. We was visiting a little shanty town out on the trail when a fight broke out between some fellas. Crandall got caught up in it by accident and got a knife in his ribs. He didn't suffer none, believe me, and the fella that done it paid the price." He looked almost sick as he said the words. "I didn't want to just tell you outright like this, but I can't think of any better way to tell you, not with you being so eager to know where he is." He paused, then said, "I remember Dad wrote a letter to Christine Maxwell, your mother, not long after Crandall passed away -- seemed proper, considering how many other letters he'd helped your father write -- but I guess that she never got it."

"She couldn't...she died when I was born," Chris answered tonelessly. There was also the fact that his grandparents had moved him to Manchester by then, so any letters sent to their old place in Hancock would go unnoticed, but Chris wasn't in the proper frame of mind to explain that particular wrinkle. Instead, he told them, "Never knew...about Jim Crandall until...few months ago."

"This explains a lot," Small Eagle said, shaking his head. "All those letters Crandall sent, and he never got an answer...I remember it used to tear him up."

Hawk said to Chris, "He wanted you and your mother to come out live here, did you know that?" The young man nodded, and Hawk continued, "Once Dad found out about the whole situation, he promised that y'all would have a home right here in Echo Valley for as long as you folks needed one. He even tried to talk Crandall into traveling back to Alabama to get you and your mother instead of just writing letters, but I think Crandall was afraid of being turned away. Reckon he thought letters were safer, even if they were unanswered."

Chris was only half-listening: his mind had drifted back to the image of his father from his dream, only now there was such sadness in his face. He didn't abandon me, Chris thought, but he didn't have the courage to come claim me, either. He thought of how different his life would have been if Crandall had shown up and taken him back here, but such fantasies mattered little to the reality he'd experienced. He'd grown up in the white man's world, not the wilderness, and wishing for that fact to change certainly wouldn't make it happen.

Then Hawk said something that cut through Chris's ruminations: "That offer still stands, by the way." Chris looked up, confused, and asked Hawk what he meant. "The offer to stay here in Echo Valley, for however long you wish," the man explained. "I don't know what sort of situation you've got going on back in Alabama, but I reckon that if'n you're willing to travel this far on the slim chance of stumbling across your father...well, something tells me that you might not be itching to go back just yet."

That's putting it mildly, Chris thought. Even now, he could imagine Elias laughing at him all the way back in Manchester, mocking the young man for wasting all those months on a futile quest. The longer he could avoid that situation in real life, the happier he'd be. But what sort of life could he make for himself out here? Again, he hadn't grown up in the wilderness, and it showed -- there was no need for a young man with a head full of nothing but book-learnin' out here. "I'm not...I don't know...what to do," Chris finally answered. "I need think about it for a while."

"Well, nobody's asking you to make a decision right this second, son. You're still looking pretty rough around the edges, anyhow. Maybe after a few days of bed rest and hot food, your head will be in better shape to think 'bout things like that." Hawk got up, his brother following suit. "In the meantime, you should just take it easy. If'n you want anything, just stick your head outside and holler...but not too loud. What little talking you've done so far probably ain't good for your voice box."

Chris nodded assent, and watched the two men as they left the tipi, leaving him alone with his thoughts. Part of him felt the way he did when he first discovered the truth about his "sister": just a jumble of conflicting emotions inside, all smashing into each other and making him feel sick. He wanted to cry, to curse, to curl up in a ball and pretend that none of this had happened...but then there was the part of him that felt relief. The searching was over. He didn't get the ending he'd wanted, but at least he'd gotten an answer of some sort. I just wish I could've met him, just once, he thought, and the dream he'd had came to mind once more: his father, standing on a hill, smiling down at him. But it was only a dream, an image cobbled together from nothing in his oxygen-starved brain, not his actual father -- what Jim Crandall actually looked like would always be a mystery to him. But at least I can get to know him a little though his friends. Hawk and Small Eagle, they seem like good people...though I'm definitely not buying into this "magic" nonsense like all those folks down in Howling Forks are. Chris laid back down on the layer of hides beneath him, saying to himself, That's one thing I have that can be of use out here: a rational outlook on things. I'm sure there's a perfectly logical explanation as to why Echo Valley can't be seen from the plateau...and it most definitely doesn't involve magic spells and Indian shamans.

He saw them coming up the rise. He was sitting cross-legged before the small tipi that had been the traditional dwelling of Echo Valley's resident shaman for countless generations. From there, one could see the entire encampment, as well as all the people who owed their peaceful existence to the power that had been passed down to him by his predecessor, Star Falling At Dawn. He did not possess it personally -- it had been bound into the very earth of Echo Valley long ago -- but he could tap into it to a degree and use it to serve his people when they needed it. He'd tried many times to extract some of that power permanently, but so far, he'd been he'd begun exploring other avenues.

The two men that approached him now knew nothing of this, nor did he wish them to. In his eyes, they were the reason why he needed an alternate source of power. The others in the valley didn't look upon them the way he did, however: they thought of the two men as great leaders, and bestowed upon them many names as a way of honoring them. Hawk and Small Eagle. The Sons of Tomahawk. The Wanderer and the Quiet Dreamer. The Harbingers of Unity. Some of their people even addressed them by their white names, Thomas and Edward. They were unaware that he had also given them a name, one that he kept hidden deep inside himself:

The Half-Breeds.

"Uncle Wise Owl!" Hawk called out to him in the language of the valley, a blending of the various tongues spoken by their ancestors in the days before Strong Bow gathered them together. "Good news: the stranger has finally awoke...though he is not so much a stranger as we had believed."

Wise Owl's eyes flicked up to his nephew. "How is this so?"

"He is the son of Jim Crandall, who passed beyond this world many years ago. Do you remember him?"

"I do indeed, for I was the one who placed the blessings of the valley upon him." He tried to keep the agitation out of his voice. "That is something not easily forgotten."

"Forgive me, Uncle, for my own forgetfulness," Hawk replied. "I must admit, I am still surprised over the discovery of the young man's identity. It is sad that neither his father nor mine lived to see this day."

"Nevertheless," Small Eagle added, "there is the joy that the promise our father made shall be fulfilled. Even if Chris Maxwell does choose to return to the whites, I believe we should at least give him the blessing, should he one day decide to return."

Wise Owl's spine stiffened at the words. "Are you sure of this? That is not something to be given to everyone, especially to a white who you have just met."

"But it had been promised to him long ago," Hawk said, "and now that my brother and I lead this tribe, the responsibility of fulfilling that promise falls to us. We cannot give him his father, which is what he truly desires, but we can give him the same privilege that was granted to his father."

He regarded to the two men, then said, "Very well. When you wish it, I shall perform the blessing upon the son of Jim Crandall."

"We thank you, Wise Owl, for your understanding." The brothers gave him a nod of respect, which he returned, though there was no respect behind his gesture. As they began to make their way back down to the main encampment, Wise Owl silently cursed both them and the young white man they'd brought into their midst. When Hawk had carried Chris Maxwell's unconscious form into camp two days earlier, he'd of course expected Wise Owl to do everything he could to save the young man's miserable life. In reality, he'd done nothing, though he'd acted as if he were performing serious ministrations whenever someone was watching him -- the most help he'd actually given was to bandage the wounds on Chris's back. Despite what he'd told his nephews, Wise Owl had thought for sure that the young man would choke to death in his sleep, but that obviously wasn't the case...and now to discover that he was Jim Crandall's son! He'd hoped that, once Crandall had died, the threat of more whites living in the valley was over, but it looked like it had just been delayed. The Half-Breeds seemed determined to continue the destruction of their people that had started with Tomahawk, and unless Wise Owl found a way to supplement his powers, he feared that they would succeed.

He let his eyes slip closed and began to chant, feeling the magic of Echo Valley ebb and flow though his old bones. He tried to direct it at Chris Maxwell, to strike him dead before he could cause any more harm, but as always, the power refused to behave in such a malicious way. Then I shall have to find a power that will, and soon, he thought, before the curse of the white tribe destroys us forever.