"Sweat does you no good if it's trapped under your bonnet," said her brother, glancing back to her from his place at the front of the wagon. His hand guided, encouraged, and steadied the oxen as they struggled to draw the heavy wagon over the final ridge. "Just take it off, Beth, nobody cares how your hair looks."
"Ladies don't sweat, Jericho." She drew her shoulders back and glared at him. "And I care how my hair looks, even if nobody else does." She picked up her skirts to navigate over a few tumbled rocks, hurrying over to stand beside him and look over the ridge. "Sweet mercy," she sighed. "There it is."
Beth frowned at the sight of the valley spread out before them, shimmering in the heat. It was marked on all sides by steep mountains, though the mountains on the south were little more than blue bumps in the distance. The ground was surprisingly green, carpeted with cacti of all sizes and shapes, from the twiggy low chollas to the slender, long-limbed saguaros. A dry riverbed cut through it, the yellow sand dotted with tall green trees that grew in very center of where the river would flow come the rainy season. Along the side of the riverbed, the desert yielded to a small settlement, mostly pueblos, though here and there were brick buildings, and a very few made of wooden frames.
It looked nothing like home.
The other travelers whooped in delight to see their goal before them. Beth's parents even got down from the wagon to see the valley, holding hands as they picked their way over the rocks.
"We won't make it there by tonight," said Elliot Jones, a brawny former blacksmith and the unofficial leader of the group. "But we'll find a place to camp tonight and make it by tomorrow afternoon. Water's low, I know, but hurrying won't make us drink less."
A slight melancholy dimmed the cheer of the group at the thought of the delay, but Elliot's reasoning was sound, so nobody complained. Instead, they fell silently to their tasks, checking the wagons and putting brakes on the back wheels to keep them from running down the slope too fast.
"I can't believe we're finally there," Bethany remarked to Jericho, watching him chock the wheels. "I don't know how I feel about that."
"I do," he said, looking up at her and grinning as his eyes began to glitter with his gift. "You're feeling relieved, a little sad, and disappointed. Probably because you're glad to not have to travel much longer, but you miss Ohio, and you think this place doesn't compare. It is kind scrubby, isn't it? Not much like the stories at all."
She felt an all-to familiar swell of irritation and rolled her eyes, "Sometimes I wish you were normal, you know. I wasn't asking you to read me."
"You said you didn't know how you felt."
"It's a figure of speech, Jericho."
"Sorry." He finished getting the wagon ready to go and stood up to put his arm around her shoulders. "It'll grow on you, I'm sure. I've heard the army ran into dragons down in that valley, down in the war. Dragons!"
"That's somehow less exciting to me than it seems to be to you," she said wryly.
"Think of all the magic down there, Beth! Enough magic to turn back the United States Army!"
"All I'm concerned with is water, shade, and new clothes that can deal with this heat."
"Well, there'll be that, too," he said, grinning cheerfully and looking at the town. "It's pretty green down…" He abruptly trailed off mid-sentence, dropping his hand from her shoulder and climbing a little higher on the ridge to get a better view.
"What is it, Jericho? Spot a dragon?" Though she was more interested in shade and civilization than in dragons, she couldn't deny that the thought of the raw desert-magic and the strange creatures of the land incited her curiosity.
"No." He shook his head, his eyes narrowing, and his square, open features turning dark. "Something's wrong in that town."
Bethany looked up at his face, shivering to see how his aspect changed when he was focusing on his gift – changing from the pleasant, rakish youth with open eyes into some intense stranger radiating with charisma and untamed power. She waited expectantly for him to continue.
"The people are frightened. There are soldiers in the streets, and ... something else that people are afraid of. I can't read it, it's not a person."
"Should we tell Elliot?"
He paused for a second, the strange glitter slowly receding from his eyes as he turned to look at her. "Yes. We're going to have to change our course, it's not safe to go there."
She sighed in exasperation. Where else could they go? Going back inside the country would mean their whole trip would have been for nothing. Going further into New Spain would surely be dangerous, rocked as it was with civil unrest.
Jericho nodded, understanding her as surely as if she had voiced all her thoughts. "I know. But I don't feel comfortable with going there right now. Maybe it's just some local trouble. We can set up camp somewhere else in the valley, and then go ahead into Tucson when things settle down."
"But our water..."
He rolled his eyes. "Now you're just whining, Beth. I'm sure you can find us some water. Look at all those plants down there." He gestured expansively at the landscape.
"I'm not even sure if my gift will work with these plants."
"Well, maybe you could try it out while I'm talking to Elliot," he suggested, smiling a little on one side and clapping a hand on her shoulder before turning away. "Mister Jones!" he called, adopting the respectful tone that worked best with the self-important leader. "I need to speak with you a moment."
Though it irritated her to hear Jericho say it, Beth knew that he was right. She hadn't tapped into a plant since they left the piney highlands of northern Arisona, and with it the last familiar landscape in this unusual country. It was time she got to know these strange plants whose names – cholla, ocatillo, agave, saguaro – still felt foreign on her tongue.
She sighed and turned her glance to the landscape, rejecting several possibilities before at last settling on an ancient, broad saguaro with at least five arms, all topped with a profusion of white buds. There was enough space between the spines to allow her to place the whole flat of her hand on the waxy green skin. She took a moment to settle herself, and then tapped in.
Beth's breath caught in her throat as her awareness flowed into the saguaro, taken by surprise by the weightless, dizzy feeling of a plant in flower. The heat around her, which just a moment before was oppressive and unpleasant, became rich and comforting, and she reveled in the light on her upturned face. She felt the soaring majesty of its fifteen feet of height; the fluttering hollows where birds nested. The structure of the cactus surprised and impressed her with its ingenuity. She had expected that there would be massive roots, long and deep, leading to a water source. Instead the roots were small and shallow, scarcely enough to anchor the ancient cactus where it stood. The water that the roots had collected was stored in the fleshy center of the trunk, the ribs expanding accordion-style to allow for increased storage space. She sensed a little of the cactus's ancient history, instinctively knowing that it was well over two hundred years old, and getting a sense of how those years had passed between burning sunshine and torrential rain, good years and lean years, shady and bright years.
Though she wanted to linger in the ancient, stately plant, she slowly pulled her awareness from it and opened her eyes; her senses rushing back to her. Elliot and Jericho's discussion was becoming heated.
"I'm not going to delay arriving because of a feeling you had!" Elliot suddenly shouted, drawing the attention of almost everyone in the camp, including Bethany's pa.
"Better listen to the boy, Jones," Ebenezer called out, leaning forward in his wagon seat. "He has the power of Man. If he says it's not safe to go to Tucson, it's not safe."
A hush fell around, as the travelers looked with new eyes on Jericho. "The power of Man is fairly rare," one of them ventured, looking cautiously at him. "Are you sure he's not just a bit empathic?"
Ebenezer chuckled a little, coming down from the wagon to stand by Jericho and Elliot. "We're sure. He and Bethany and our other boy were triplets."
An "ah" went up from the crowd, and many nodded in understanding. Triplets -- if they survived after birth -- were almost guaranteed to be powerfully gifted. Sometimes they had the same gift (typically prophecy), and sometimes different, complementary ones. Some said the power of triplets was because they symbolized the trinity, others said it was because a woman's strength was insufficient to nourish three children, and so the babes in the womb fed on the magic of the earth, in addition to their mother's blood.
"Why isn't your other boy with you, then?"
"Gilead had the power of Beasts," said Ebenezer, his voice thick with regret. "We lost him to wildness some years ago."
Beth caught Jericho's gaze, the memory exchanging between their eyes. She felt a twinge of guilt for the secret they had long kept from their parents, though she knew it was better that they just thought of Gil as lost forever. Her mother's heart would not sustain the wound re-opened. She looked away from Jericho and glanced over the travelers in whose company they had spent the last several months, and shivered to see their expressions. They would never see her and her brother as just a pair of teenagers ever again. Some looked with fear and suspicion, others with awe and admiration, but things were permanently, irrevocably changed.
"What's she got?" Elliot tilted his head towards her.
"Power of the Root."
"A tree-speaker?" He tilted his eyebrow. "You should've left her on the farm, friend, where she's needed."
Her wounded pride flared angrily within her, and Jericho looked apologetically her way. The only thing she hated worse than having strangers know of her gift was to have it compared with her brothers'.
"I can find water," she spoke up, defensively, tugging her bonnet forward to shade her complexion. "And if we're not going to Tucson, we'll need to refill our casks in two days time."
Elliot glanced between the siblings, and sighed. "Very well, then. I suppose we might as well play it safe. Find a source of water, Miss Smythe, and give us a new direction."
Though tempted to refuse just for spite's sake, Bethany simply glared and nodded mutely. They would need water, and she could locate it. Many eyes turned to her expectantly, and her stomach flipped uncomfortably. She hated being put on exhibition. "I can't do it with people breathing down my neck," she announced to the crowd in general. "I'll be back in a moment. Jericho, Pa, if you'd come with me…"
Jericho and his father shared an aggravated glance and separated themselves from the wagon train, picking carefully through the prickly undergrowth as they followed Bethany. Keeping a rigorous pace that caused the two men to mutter curses as they failed to avoid spiny branches in their way, she continued until she was sure they were well out of sight and hearing.
"Why did you have to go and tell everyone, Pa? Don't you know by now how I hate that?" She set her hands on her hips and fixed her father with a fierce glare.
He sighed, looking at the sky for patience. "Yes, I know. But it convinced Elliot, didn't it? Besides, nobody thinks about how you're different half as much as you do, Beth."
"Jericho was doing just fine on convincing him by himself."
"Actually, I wasn't doing so well, Beth, don't blame Pa," Jericho cut in, putting a hand on her elbow to soothe her. She tugged it away. "Elliot's stubborn. I can't talk a person into doing anything they really don't want to do."
"You liar." She was determined to be cross with him. "You talk me into doing things I don't want to do all the time!"
"That's different. You're pliable and sweet-tempered." Her brother grinned casually and winked. "And kind, intelligent, generous, and sweet. Have I left anything out?" As always, he knew just what to say to defuse her when she was gearing up for an argument.
"I hate you, Jericho Smythe. And I wish you wouldn't use your damned power of Man on me," she said, though she struggled to maintain a glare when she wanted to grin. She knew already that she'd lost the argument before it started -- just like always -- but she had to put up a token defense.
"Can't help it, Beth, you know that. I honestly don't even turn my mind to you, I just always know what you're feeling."
"And how to make me stop." She laughed, feeling her sulkiness begin slip away.
"Well, yes, but that's more because I grew up with you than because of my gift, you know that. It's too hot to be angry anyway, don't you think? Besides, we can always ditch this group of travelers when we get to town..."
"If we get to town," she pointed out.
"Don't interrupt, Beth. It's not ladylike. We can ditch them when we get to town, and set up somewhere new where nobody knows us. It'll be fine."
She sighed, and then turned her hands outwards in a gesture of defeat. "You're right, you're right. I know." She turned to look at Ebenezer, who had been standing by, too wise to interfere in his children's argument. "Sorry, Pa. I was just upset."
"I know. I would be, too. And maybe a bit of it was my fault -- I'm a bit quick to brag about you two. It's not every father who has such talented children."
She grinned on one side and hugged her pa, pressing her face against his shoulder for a moment. Sometimes she rather liked it that he was completely, hopelessly ungifted. When Ebenezer found just the right words, it wasn't because his gift told him just what to say, it was just because he was her pa and he loved her. He held her tight and stroked her back, though the heat made such closeness a little sticky and unpleasant. "Jericho's not talented, really, not nearly as much as I am," she said against his shoulder, feigning petulance.
"Of course not," Jericho replied blithely. "And speaking of your talents…"
"Oh, right, of course." Bethany nodded and pulled away from her pa, moving over to the closest saguaro. The other cacti tempted her with their mystery and newness, but she would have time to greet them later. She sat down next to the chosen cactus, tucking her skirts carefully underneath her, and placed her hand against it.
Immediately, there was the heady feeling the emanated from its flowers, the fierce strength of its trunk and long limbs. She traveled down the roots, which wound around and through the underground rocks, searching for a point where it brushed against the root of another plant. She soon found it, and leaped to the next plant, her awareness of the original one fading to a single link that would lead her back to where she sat with her father and brother. She found herself often on many dead ends, having to retrace her path on the highway of roots to an earlier split, searching for cacti that would be ever fatter and more well watered as she drew close to a well. She found the dry riverbed, with moisture from the monsoon rains locked too deep inside to be useful, and the wells of Tucson, where they could not go. As she searched, she grew more and more comfortable with the initial alien feel of the saguaro, its mystery unfolding to merely a beautiful strangeness, a lovely fierceness.
At last, she found a place where plants grew thick around a circular brick wall, the water of the well seeping out at the sides and nourishing life. She followed the path of roots back to the initial place, and opened her eyes. She still left her last few links onto the network of cacti intact, though, unwilling just yet to sever the bond. "There's a well in a place about thirty miles to the south of Tucson. If we get going now, we could probably get there the day after tomorrow."
"Well done," her father said, placing a worn hand on her shoulder.
"Took your sweet time about it," said Jericho with a grin.
Bethany was about to cut the link from the cactus when she felt something strange at the end of her chain of links. "One moment," she said, and closed her eyes once more.
She moved from link to link, searching for what had caught her attention like a flash in the distance. At each link, she simply found what was at each other -- the strong essence of the saguaro, each a little bit different than its neighbor but overwhelming similar. Then, at last, she confronted something quite new. Intelligence burned brightly at the other end of the link, and for one overwhelming moment she caught a glimpse of what the power of Man must be like for Jericho. To be able to comprehend in an instant the character, the personality of another intelligent being was like viewing a rich tapestry, or hearing a complex symphony. There was a note of mischievousness here, a thread of curiosity weaving there, a theme of independence, survival, and strength burning brightly -- and then it noticed her. There was a pause, in which she realized that it noticed her, and then the tone turned sharply dark, and she recognized malevolence and was filled with alarm, just a moment too late. She turned to race back down the highway of roots, feeling that brilliance right at her heels.
And then all went dark, and she heard a sound, like an echo at great distance. Her father's voice.
She awoke to the unholy jarring of the wagon wheels over broken rock, the rumbling and jostling contributing to a massive headache that originated somewhere behind her eyes and worked its way outward. She felt disoriented, unable to remember why she was in the dark, stifling wagon, sweating profusely underneath a heavy quilt.
Bethany tried to cast her mind back to what happened, but thinking was hard and her mind was foggy. Her train of thought was frequently interrupted as she observed just how much her head hurt. In attempting to sit up, she had a disorienting, panic-inducing moment where she felt that she was disconnected from her own body. It passed after a few seconds, and she sat up and blinked hard to clear her head.
She looked around, finding herself alone in the dim enclosure – not that she could blame anyone for not staying by her side to watch over her. Even through the thin mattress pad, the jolting of the wagon shook every bone in her body and intensified her headache. She wanted to get out of the wagon and walk again, but she still felt too dizzy to stand up and hop out while it was moving. Mostly, she just wanted the wagon to stop long enough for her to gather her thoughts.
Almost as if commanded by her unvoiced complaint, the Conestoga came to halt, and she sighed with relief. The narrow beam of light coming in from the back entrance of the wagon was momentarily obscured, and Jericho scrambled inside.
"You're awake! Maybe I should black out one of these days so I can get a proper sleep for once, instead of getting up at five to hitch the oxen," he said, navigating around the boxes and barrels of their belongings to sit down next to her on the little bed. "Though I can feel your headache from here, so maybe not."
Bethany groaned and leaned her head against his shoulder. "Yes, I'd trade places with you right now in a heartbeat. I'll be fine to walk in just a second, though, there's no need to stop the whole train for me."
"Well, there's the thing, Beth..."
"What? What happened?"
"Well, when we brought you back -- and you looked awful, and pale, and hardly had a heartbeat. If didn't know you were alive, I would've thought you were dead."
"That made no sense, Jer."
"It's your headache that's making you confused. I'm making perfect sense. Anyway, I had to carry you back -- why did you black out, anyway? I can't read you when you're doing your root thing, so I have no idea."
"Can you just tell the story, Jericho?"
"Is Bethany awake?" Her mother's voice interrupted from outside.
"Yes, ma," she called out in reply. "And I'm fine. I just have a little headache."
Lydia climbed into the cramped wagon, picking her way over boxes and barrels in order to sit on Bethany's other side. "Are you sure?"
Bethany closed her eyes as Lydia put her cool hand on her forehead, surprised by how soothing her ma's touch could be. "Yes, ma. I think the headache's just from riding in the wagon so long."
"Hm." Lydia took a tin cup and filled it from the cask of water that sat nearby. "Drink this."
"Ma, if we're running out of water..." Bethany held it tentatively, willing her hands not to tremble and spill.
"Drink it." Her tone did not brook argument. Obligingly, Bethany lifted it to her lips, sipping it slowly and trying to ignore the taste of dirt in her mouth. "Good girl."
Catching Jericho's longing glance at the cup, Bethany drained just half of it and then handed the rest to him. He smiled his gratitude, and then drank it before their mother could protest.
"Jericho's been out in the sun all day, and I haven't," Beth explained, shrinking a little from Lydia's severe look.
"You're the best sister ever," Jericho said, putting an arm around her and squeezing for a moment in a sideways hug. "And I'm glad you're still around. I was really scared for you yesterday."
"We all were." Lydia's expression was solemn. She took up a comb and tapped Bethany on the shoulder, motioning for her to turn to the side so she could take care of her knotted locks. "Here, let me help you with your hair."
"Thanks, Ma." Bethany twisted to the side to turn her back to her mother, smiling as Lydia began to hum an old lullaby as she began to comb out her hair. Bethany found that the rhythmic tugging and pulling of her hair soothed her tangled nerves and even helped calm her headache. "Now Jericho was about to tell me something…"
"Oh, right. So as I was saying," Jericho continued, "when we carried you back, Mister Jones took one look at you and was determined he wasn't going to follow the directions of a girl who had fits. Or her brother's directions, either. Said our gifts were probably counterfeits from devil, and that God had finally decided to strike you down. But in my mind, the gift of stubbornness is a lot less likely to come from God than the Power of Man. Jesus had the power of Man, very likely..."
"Blasphemy, Jericho," Lydia said warningly.
"Yes, Ma," he said humbly, though he made an exasperated face only Bethany could see. "So, Elliot decided not to listen to us, but to go to Tucson as he originally planned. Everybody else went with him."
"Everybody? They just left us?" Bethany asked in disbelief.
"And marched straight to hell, I'm afraid, yes. I'm still feeling that there's something very wrong in Tucson. If anything, it's gotten worse since yesterday."
"I can't believe everyone just – just abandoned us like that! Didn't you try to talk them around, Jericho? Everybody likes you so much better than Elliot, anyway…"
"I didn't try very hard, I'm afraid. I... I would've wanted them to follow us because they trusted us, not because I talked them into doing it." He looked into his hands, avoiding Bethany's gaze.
"Jericho, you might've sent them to their deaths! Something's terribly wrong in Tucson, you said so!" It was hard to look threatening with her chin pointed skyward to accommodate her mother's combing, but Bethany gave it a try nonetheless. "You'll be responsible for them if they die!"
"It's not my fault; they're the ones who didn't want to listen! You're always after me for being manipulative and conniving, I don't see where you get off being so upset about it. I didn't send them to their deaths. I just didn't drag them away. They're the ones who're walking there, of their own free will and choice. So don't blame it on me."
"Children!" Lydia rapped on the top of Bethany's head with the comb, and sent Jericho a warning glare. "Please handle your disagreements civilly. There's no need for raised voices."
"Yes, Ma," they chorused in obedient, if begrudging, unison.
"I agree that Jericho should have tried harder to convince everybody not to go to Tucson. I've seen how charming he can be, he might've been able to talk them around. But that doesn't change the fact that we did warn them, and they chose not to listen."
"I know." Bethany sighed, looking down at her hands and picking at her fingernails. "Sorry for snapping, Jericho. It's just that I really thought some of those families were our friends. The Prines, the Campbells... I'm going to miss them. Agnes Prine was sweet on you, you know."
He nodded. "Of course I knew. It was very flattering." His expression was simultaneously wry and sad. "And I'm not going to tell you the boys that were sweet on you, because I really didn't like any of them."
"You never like anyone who likes me."
"I wouldn't say never, Beth."
"I don't like them, either, really," Ma commented, smiling and setting aside the comb. "I wouldn't take well to anyone trying to take away my baby girl, but especially since we went west – the young men out here are so coarse." She ran a few more strokes through Bethany's hair before setting the comb aside and beginning to twist it up.
"Their manners are just a bit rougher, that's all. They still have good morals – well, some of them do." Bethany blushed a little. "The ones that I like, anyway."
"Which ones do you like?" Jericho asked, before shaking his head and cutting her off before she could answer. "No, I see what you're about. You're just trying to get us off topic. To sum up my story, everybody thinks that we're touched in the head, and so we are going alone to follow the directions you gave us when you first blacked out. But it's alright, because we don't need them anyway. Now it's your turn. How did that happen?"
"I don't know," Bethany replied honestly, shaking her head and trying not to avoid Jericho's gaze. "I really don't. I can't even quite remember how it happened. I remember that I tapped in to search for water... and then I woke up back here."
"That's it? Do you remember finding it and then giving us the directions?"
"I don't..." She trailed off as the memory returned. "Yes. I followed the path down until I found water, but I didn't want to leave the path right away. You wouldn't believe how amazing those plants are, and I just wanted to stay connected for a bit. So I -- this is hard to explain -- I left the connection open while I was talking to you, and there was a -- a flash at the end of the path. Not really a flash, because you don't really see it, but a something there that was different. So I went to go look."
"A something?" he asked and quirked an eyebrow. "You can't be more specific?"
"It's hard to say. Have you ever encountered another person with the power of Man?"
"No, I haven't." Jericho looked a trifle smug. "It's not every day you come by one of us, you know. Why?"
"I was just wondering. I think maybe there might've been another person like me tapping into the same root system. Only, a not very nice person."
"It's generally not very nice to knock people out, I agree."
"It was more than that. I kind of think that it was something like it must be like for you, Jer. I could see whoever it was, personality, feelings and all. And while there were quite a few qualities to admire, it was really quite malicious." She paused. "But I'm not sure if that was a personality trait or just a feeling of the moment. Maybe it feels very proprietary about that root system."
"Now you're making no sense, Beth."
"The whole thing makes no sense, it's not my fault. Even if it was another person at the end of the line, so to speak, why should they be able to knock me out like that? I'm almost positive I wouldn't have been able to do something like that to it."
"I know I can't do anything like that. Not for lack of trying, though, you and Gil would've spent half your childhood unconscious if I'd have my way about it."
"You were a little beast."
Lydia laughed in agreement.
"Only because you and Gil had your own little world and were always leaving me out of it."
"You got along better with adults, anyway. We could see through you," she said, forgetting to tease. It was the truth – Jericho had spent much of his youth as an outright, manipulative bully, spoiled not by parental design but because his gift made him near impossible to discipline – he always knew how to stop just before his mother reached the end of her rope.
"Right, Beth." He nodded and looked away. "You could."
"I didn't mean it like that," she said, suddenly aware that she'd genuinely hurt his feelings. "Jericho..."
"You meant it, Beth, you can't lie."
"You're much better now, Jericho. But you must remember how you would bully us -- is it any wonder we'd run off and play without you when we could?"
"No," he said quietly, and shook his head.
"Oh, don't you go moping about your poor loveless childhood. Everyone else adored you. You had more friends than you could count. Gil and I had each other."
"And you had some other friends, too. Gil was really the only odd man out."
The three of them paused for a moment, and Bethany was suddenly aware of her mother's hands falling still in the midst of pinning up her hair.
"We've gotten kind of sidetracked from the original conversation, haven't we?" Bethany finally asked when the silence got too strained.
"It's good to remember sometimes, that's all, Beth," Lydia said, putting the last pin in and then leaning back to examine her handiwork. "Mercy, but you have beautiful hair, child. I always thought that sunshine yellow was wasted on your pa."
She nodded absently, crossing her arms over her stomach. "Thanks, Ma. I think yours is prettier, still."
"I agree, Beth, Ma's prettier," Jericho said with a wink, and she kicked at his shins. He moved his legs out of the way just in time. "Anyway. Can you think of anything else that might help us be able to figure out what happened to you?"
Bethany shook her head. "No, I can't. The more I think about it, the more confused I feel."
"Could be dementia settling in," he teased. "Just like Great-Uncle Horus. You never know when that kind of thing will strike."
She did her best to look at him in a superior sort of way, restraining the desire to push, punch, or poke him. It would just egg him on if she did. "I hear that sort of thing runs exclusively on the male side of the family."
Lydia laughed. "Oh, that's enough of that. You two can't have two minutes of conversation without starting to snipe at each other. Now let's all get out and tell Pa to get moving again, shall we?"