Southwestern Kansas, 1872
IT HAD BEEN ALMOST THREE WEEKS since the two men on horseback had seen home. Fatigued, they spoke little that day, half dozing in their saddles. Luckily, the animals carrying them knew the way. The only sounds that day were their horses’ hooves on the dirt trail and the wind as it passed over the prairie. Except for a few clouds, the day was warm and dry.
Toward evening, one of the men, a dusky fellow, spoke: “Abby—you awake?”
Abby, a ruddy young man of around twenty-three, looked up from under his own broad-brimmed hat. “Guess I am, now,” he chuckled. “What’s up, Mal?”
“Look up ahead,” the one called Mal said, pointing toward the setting sun.
Abby looked ahead of them to see the geologic anomaly, the landmark announcing they would see home by tomorrow evening. He grinned. “Hot damn. Bet ye’re lookin’ forward to some o’ Jo’s chicken n’ dumplin’s!”
“Bet you are, too,” Mal replied, grinning in return. Then, more seriously: “I just thought I’d invite ya ‘fore ya invited yerself.”
“I think I deserve it, after eatin’ that pig slop o’ yers since we been on the trail.”
Mal laughed. “I done told you, friend—anytime you think you can outdo me with a fryin’ pan, yer welcome to it!”
The two men fell silent again as they regarded the view before them.
There is a misconception that the Sunflower State is completely flat. Kansas has its fair share of rolling hills and highlands. Nothing like the majestic Rockies a few hundred miles west, but still quite distinct from the surrounding tall grass prairie.
The sandstone-topped rise ahead of them was one such geologic feature. Local Indians once called it by a name that translated into English as ‘Sky-Snake of Many Colors’.
At certain times of the year, that might be an apt description, especially in the springtime, when prairie flowers were blooming—or the autumn, when the oak leaves turned color. The far side was only a few miles east of Freewater, where some of the locals had dubbed it ‘Rainbow Ridge’. This time of year however, the hills’ colors were more muted.
As Abby and Mal rode into the west, the red evening sun slipped behind Rainbow Ridge, throwing out streamers of orange and gold into the deepening azure skies. It was a sight Abby never tired of.
“Where d’ya wanna make camp?” Abby asked.
“Ya think we can make the ridge before dark?”
“I dunno.” Abby patted his horse’s neck. “How ya holdin’ up, Stony?”
Mal looked up at the sky. The clouds were increasing and darkening, and the breeze blowing up from Texas and the Sonoran Desert picked up. “These horses need a rest, but I don’t like the look of that,” he said, pointing at the gathering storm. “I don’t think we wanna get caught in it—do you?”
Abby nodded. “Sorry, Stony.” He kicked his horse into a moderate trot. “Hyah!”
“Okay, Doogie—let’s put on some steam!” Mal commanded his own mount, snapping the reins.
It was nearly pitch black when they arrived at the base of Rainbow Ridge. By then, the wind was howling. The darkness was split repeatedly by lightning, raising the specter of a prairie fire.
“We need to get up to higher ground!” Abby shouted over the wind, pointing back toward the east.
Mal saw the twister forming over the flatlands stretching back toward Wichita. “There’s a cave off to the left about a mile on!”
“I never heard of it!”
“You wouldn’t have! Come on!” And with that, Mal pressed his mount off of the main road and into an oak grove—a deadly place to be in case of a lightning strike, but no worse than the alternative.
Behind them, on the road they had just departed from, there was a mighty explosion and a blinding flash of light. The horses reared up in panic as their riders fought to get them under control. There was little room to maneuver in the woods, and no place to go but forward. Only the horses’ own exhaustion prevented them from bolting, which in these woods, could have been fatal.
The riders emerged on to another trail, much narrower and less marked. It would have been difficult to see in broad daylight, and normally impossible on a stormy night.
But Mal seemed to know where he was going.
The twister drew closer...
Just as the whirling column of wind hit the base of Rainbow Ridge, the two men came upon the cave, barely visible. It wasn’t much more than an indentation in the sandstone, going back only ten yards or so. But it was enough to protect them and their horses. By now, Abby was lost. The cave was illuminated briefly and sporadically by flashes of lightning, but he nonetheless had to place his life and that of his horse in Mal’s hands.
He’d done it before.
“Stop here,” Mal ordered. Gingerly, he dismounted Doogie, then took a long, cylindrical object from one of his saddlebags. Feeling his way into the cave, he disappeared into the blackness. A few seconds later, there was a burst of yellow flame, revealing Mal standing there, holding a torch aloft.
It wasn’t much, but it gave off enough light for Abby to see as he tethered the horses to an oak near the entrance, then lead them into the cave.
The first thing he did was take a feed bag out of his own saddlebag and fill it with grain he carried with him. “I’d say you done earned this tonight,” he said as he tied the bag over Stony’s head, patting the gelding’s neck. “You too, Doog,” he added to Mal’s horse as his rider built a fire in a stone circle that had been there for years, perhaps decades.
Indians had used this shelter for centuries, but very few white settlers were aware it existed.
They had found it not a second too soon. Outside of the cave, the wind blew with the force of God’s own wrath, howling like the Devil himself. Inside the cave, they were safe.
Once the horses were fed and calmed, Abby and Mal sat down around the fire and made supper of hard tack and dried apple. “Leastways, I don’t have to eat yer cookin’ tonight,” Abby said wryly.
“That’s one way of lookin’ at it,”
“I can hardly believe you found us this place.”
“I could find this place blind.”
“You did. How’d you know about it?”
“I stayed here when I was a young ’un.”
“Didn’t know ye’d been in these parts that long.”
Mal didn’t answer right away. Finally, he said quietly, “It was a station on ‘The Railroad’.”
Abby nodded in understanding. The two men were silent for a moment. There was only the howling of the wind, the crackling of the fire and the occasional snorting of the horses.
Finally, Abby spoke. “You an’ Jo speak with Hank, yet?”
Mal shook his head slowly. “I figure we’ll tell ‘im when I get back.”
Abby nodded. “Well...’tain’t none of my business what’s between ya...but I figure like it says in the Good Book, all things work toward the best.”
Abby and Mal lay back with their heads propped against their saddles, allowing their weariness to carry them off into dreams despite the noise of the storm outside.
Men and horses jerked awake as the explosion gave way to a low rumbling noise and an intense, pulsing golden-white illumination poured into the cave.
The men leaped to their feet, running toward the frightened horses. Abby reached them first, grabbing their lead ropes.
“Hurry, I can’t hold both of ’em!” Abby cried out.
Mal rushed up and took one of the lead ropes, holding fast as the horse at the end of it started to rear up.
The pulsing light started to fade...and so did the wind. Gradually, the men were able to calm their horses.
An eerie silence came over the cave, broken only by equine snorting and fidgeting and the crackling of the dwindling fire.
“What in the name of Great God Almighty was that?” Abby asked apprehensively.
“Damn if I know,” Mal replied, visibly shaken
WHEN THEY EMERGED FROM THE CAVE the next morning, it was as almost if the violence of the previous night had never occurred. There were no signs of fire or explosions, and few branches had fallen. Abby and Mal walked their horses with lead ropes, carefully choosing the path so as to avoid missteps that would lame one or both of the animals. Slowly, they made their way back to the main trail between Wichita and Freewater.
As they emerged from the wood, they found themselves face-to-face with a young girl, dressed in a shimmering gown unlike anything either Abby or Mal had ever seen. She carried a small leather bag or satchel of a strange, dark red color that hung from some type of green silken cord over her shoulder.
The child was ethereally, almost inhumanly beautiful, with long, reddish-blonde curls framing her elfin face. Her eyes were large, slightly almond shaped and of an unworldly shade of cerulean blue. She appeared to be nine or ten years old.
The two men were thunderstruck for a moment. Finally, Mal spoke: “Are you lost, little one?”
The girl looked up, first at Mal, then at Abby. Her eyes seemed to penetrate Abby’s very soul. “Where’s your Ma and Pa?” he asked slowly, bending down. He noticed an odd pendant on a golden chain around her neck. It was a circle containing a figure resembling the letter ‘Z’.
The little girl reached up and touched Abby’s forehead, holding her hand against it for a few seconds. She closed her eyes, then opened them and stepped back. “Where am I?” she asked in a plaintive, silver-toned voice.
To Abby, it sounded the way he imagined an angel of the Lord speaking. He had no words at that moment.
“Can you tell us how you got here?” asked Mal.
The girl seemed dazed. Abby mounted his horse. He offered the girl a hand. “Ya wanna get up here with me?”
The girl looked up at Abby with uncertainty, then over at Mal, who nodded. Tentatively, she took Abby’s hand and allowed him to pull her up and onto the saddle behind him. Looking around, Abby said, “Now, you put yer arms around my waist and hold tight...y’ hear?”
The girl nodded and complied. Abby and Mal looked at each other, nodded and slapped their horse’s reins.
“You at least have a name?” Mal asked the girl.
For a moment, she seemed confused. “It’s O—Oss...” She shook her head. “Zima...?” Looking up over at Mal, she said, “I can’t remember...” She leaned her head against Abby’s back and hugged him a little tighter.
“It’s all right, little one,” Abby reassured the girl as they rode.
THE STRANGE GIRL WHO COULDN’T seem to remember her name (or anything else) stayed with Abby’s mother and his brother Hank. Meanwhile, Abby rode to every settlement between Freewater, Dodge City and the borders with the Colorado and Indian Territories, attempting to learn her parents’ fate. There were a few small bands of Cheyenne and Arapaho in the area, but there had not been any real Indian raids since the war. Nor was Abby able to find any recently burned-out homesteads or other signs of such an occurrence. In any event, a band of Indians would more likely have taken the girl and raised her as one of their own. The odd, maroon colored leather bag remained a mystery as well. The mysterious girl guarded it jealously, refusing to allow anyone to see its contents.
Nonetheless, their widowed mother became very fond of the girl, even going so far as to give her the name ‘Theodora’ and indulging her odd desire by providing a special ‘hiding place’ for her secret ‘treasure’. Henry and his brother Abby were never able to find it, though they would learn of its contents many years later.
In the meantime, Abby and Hank found themselves with a new stepsister. Over the subsequent years, Theodora grew into a beautiful, if unusual young woman.
But neither they, their mother or Mal were ever to learn anything about where she had come from or the whereabouts or fate of her family.