Bookworm and Mariah left Cheyenne early in the morning, heading northwest, which would eventually take them to the mountains. They had a long way to ride, but Bookworm took it very easy that first day, knowing what was coming. Mariah, though, still seemed oblivious to what was in store.
The plains were hot and dry, but Bookworm had bought as many maps of the area as she could get in Cheyenne, maps showing terrain and, more importantly, water sources. Late in the afternoon, they reached her first objective--a small stream flowing down from the nearby hills. A few scrubby trees would provide what they needed for a cooking fire. Bookworm dismounted easily enough and moved to her pack horse. Mariah swung her leg over and dismounted... and nearly collapsed, as her legs seemed unable to straighten. She clung to the saddlebow, an involuntary groan escaping her lips. She looked over at Bookworm and saw her grinning, holding a bottle of liniment in her hand. Bookworm quickly came to Mariah's horse, dragged a bedroll off, and spread it out on the ground. "Come on," she said. "The sooner we get started, the sooner you'll feel at least a little better."
Mariah settled down onto her stomach with another groan. "This is your revenge, isn't it? Revenge for all those training sessions."
"Yep," Bookworm replied, amusement clear in her voice. She helped Mariah remove her pants, exposing her legs, and got to work with the liniment.
Several minutes of painful massage and manipulation later, Bookworm sat back on her heels. "That should do it for now. You'll need more before you go to sleep, and probably again in the morning." Mariah replaced her pants, and found she was indeed able to stand normally now, and even help gather wood for the fire. She saw that Bookworm was moving somewhat stiffly too, and wondered now if the liniment they'd brought would actually last.
Over the next few days, as they traveled further into the empty plains, they began to establish a routine and rhythm to their travel. As they both grew more accustomed to life in the saddle, Bookworm began hunting and gathering whatever she could find to supplement their food supplies. Mariah, once Bookworm had taught her about the local fauna, added her crack-shot skills to the hunting.
One morning, as they were finishing breakfast, Bookworm suddenly looked up sharply, her expresion one of intently listening. Mariah listened, too, and finally caught a far-off, strange sound of snorting. Bookworm grinned at that, and stood up. "C'mon, douse the fire," she said. "This should be a sight worth seeing."
As Mariah doused the fire and tidied up the campsite, Bookworm saddled her horse and grabbed camera, tripod, and several photographic plates, strapping them behind the saddle. "We shouldn't be gone long, Mariah," she called as she saddled Mariah's mare. "Hurry up!"
They rode off, heading in the direction of the snorting. Mariah had always thought plains like this were flat and featureless, and one could see things coming from miles off. In reality, though, there were rolling hills and plenty of large declivities, so it wasn't until they were nearly on top of the noises' source that they topped a ridge and saw it.
Mariah's jaw dropped at the sight of the sea of brown before them. Hundreds and hundreds of massive, cow-like creatures carpeted the plain below them, grazing, ambling forward, grunting and snorting.
"Buffalo," Bookworm said with satisfaction. "There aren't many large herds like this one left; we're lucky to see it." She looked around, then pointed along the ridge. "Let's move that way--the angle of the light should be better."
Bookworm fussed around for some time before finding the perfect place to set up her camera. While she took pictures, Mariah contented herself with simply watching the seething mass of life below.
As Bookworm pulled the last plate from her camera, they both heard a mechanical droning noise. On the other side of the buffalo herd, they saw an airship slowly approaching. "Now that's the way to sightsee," Mariah said teasingly. "Out of the heat, the dust... the smell..."
Bookworm rolled her eyes and grinned. But even as she finished strapping the camera and tripod back on her horse, she felt an uneasiness welling up. She took the reins of the gelding and walked back to the ridge, watching intently. The airship was hovering at the edge of the herd--well above it, but Bookworm could see some of the buffalo shifting restlessly under the continuous assault of the noise of the airship's motors.
Suddenly, the airship dove down, skimming above the buffalo at the far edge of the herd. That was enough to drive them into a run, and within seconds, the entire herd was stampeding.
Stampeding straight toward Bookworm and Mariah.
"Those fools!" Bookworm swiftly mounted. "Hurry!" she yelled at Mariah, slapping her horse into a gallop. Mariah was right behind her, hanging on grimly, the close drumming of their horses' hooves drowning out the thunder of the buffalo herd. Mariah glanced back once as the buffalo topped the ridge they'd been on. "How can such massive things move so quickly?!" she yelled, turning back around and struggling to keep her seat.
Bookworm also looked back, but for a longer time, trusting the gelding to find the best path for them. She saw that the herd had spread out into a longer, thinner line. The large airship was in the middle, keeping pace with it, and now she saw two smaller ships on each end of the herd, diving and darting around. She cursed and faced forward again.
"What is it?" Mariah shouted.
"They didn't spook the herd--they're deliberately driving them!"
"Driving them? Where?"
Bookworm rose a little in the stirrups, peering forward. "I don't know where, but I know what!" she yelled.
"What?!" Mariah looked at her, confused.
"A cliff! They're going to drive them over a cliff, and us too!"
((To be continued...))