The Mountain Man by aka "Jake"

"Love is seldom logical, and its fears and misgivings are apt to warp the faculties."

-- James Fenimore Cooper, "The Pathfinder," 1840


Chapter 1

The Dauntless journeyed upriver, her twin stacks billowing ash, her paddlewheel churning the Missouri's muddy water. She was bound for the goldfields of Montana Territory. Picks, barrows, panning sieves, and other provisions filled her main deck. Rowdy miners crowded the boiler deck above, their attention focused westward, eyes bright with anticipation.

The year was eighteen-sixty-five and the discovery of gold was luring men by the thousands from the old battlefields in the east to the Rocky Mountain Front, a wilderness previously inhabited only by Indians and a handful of hardy trappers. Prospectors and entrepreneurs were rushing to Grasshopper Creek, American Fork, and Alder Gulch, bent on striking it rich or making a fresh start.

Dana Scully was headed to Montana, too, although it was a sense of duty, not a desire for riches or adventure, which prompted her journey. Her final destination was a military outpost in Flatwillow, two-thousand miles northwest of St. Louis and a month's journey from Geneva, New York, where she had recently graduated from Hobart College.

Lacking the enthusiasm of her fellow passengers, she stood apart on the aft deck, leaning against the rail and peering down at the turbulent river. Her nerves felt as unsettled as the current, her future as murky as the silt-filled water. In her gloved hand she clutched a letter, an edict from her father, sent last May. She had read it so many times she knew its contents by heart.

"Beloved Daughter," it said, "I heartily congratulate you on the completion of your medical studies. I am filled with pride as I reflect upon your considerable accomplishments. That said, I cannot encourage your notion of relocating to the former Confederacy to lend aid to a hospital there. While commendable in principle, your aspirations are naïve and fraught with peril. Our nation faces a long, uncertain transition from war to peacetime. The south is no place for a woman without husband or father to lend protection or guidance.

"You would do well to consider your sister's imprudence and learn from her mistakes. Melissa risks not only her physical wellbeing, but her immortal soul as she drifts across Europe without purpose or escort. Your mother and I are at once outraged and heartsick with worry. I am determined not to lose you as we have lost her. To that end, I have arranged for your passage to Fort Culbertson. We have need of a doctor here, should you desire to practice your avocation. I have contacted your brother Charles, who will be in New York on the 13th to accompany you on your journey to Montana.

"Your mother and Bill Jr. are eager to see you and send their deepest affection. I am keen to introduce you to a lieutenant under my command, a fine soldier and decent fellow, who I believe would make an excellent husband for you.

"I trust you will be a dutiful child and return to me without argument or regret. Your safety and happiness are, as always, my utmost concern."

The letter went on for two more pages, extolling settled life on the western frontier and praising the virtues of an obedient daughter. It was signed, "Your devoted father, Cap W.S.S."

Dana had been looking forward to practicing her new medical skills where they were most needed, in the war-ravaged south, but she could not disappoint her father. She loved him. Worshipped him, to be precise. She trusted his counsel and craved his affection. Above all, she wanted to make him proud of her.

To please him, she had stayed with his Aunt Olive while attending Hobart College, submitting without complaint to the elderly woman’s early curfews, endless lectures on morality, and persistent condemnation of Melissa’s scandalous behavior. Dana worked tirelessly to earn high marks and receive her letters in record time. She endured the condescending attitudes of instructors who believed medicine was not an appropriate occupation for a woman. And now, after all her efforts, she was abandoning her dream of making a difference in the south to travel west instead, where she was expected to marry a man of her father's choosing...a man she had never met.

A hawk keened overhead and Dana lifted her gaze to the prairie beyond the river. Prong-horned antelope foraged on bitterbrush, while a lone fox hunted frogs in the bulrushes by the shore. Further west, the Rocky Mountains jutted from the grassland like giant, bleached vertebrae -- the "backbone of the world" according to the autochthons. The sight sent a chill across her shoulders and she shivered, despite the warm August sun.

"Morning, Sis." Charlie's cheerful greeting startled her as he joined her at the rail. He planted a wet, affectionate kiss on her cheek.

"It's early afternoon," she corrected, tucking the letter into her skirt pocket.

"Is it?" He tipped his head back and squinted into the bright sun. His unruly hair and rumpled suit belied a good night's sleep.

"You were up gambling all night, weren't you?" she accused.

"Not *all* night. I kept Mrs. Woolsey company on the forecastle for a couple of hours before dawn."

"And stole a kiss among the spars and hawsers, no doubt."

"More than a kiss, dear sister." He winked and gently elbowed her ribs.

"You're a scoundrel, Charles Scully. She's a married woman!"

"And I'm a married man. So what?"

"So what would Father say?"

"Very little, I imagine. Certainly not the dressing-down you would get if he were to learn about your little affair with Dr. Waterston. What did you say his area of expertise was? Anatomy? Biology?"

He was teasing, but even so Dana felt a rush of blood heat her face. "Little affair indeed; we shared but one kiss." She reached up to straighten the stickpin in his tie. "Father must never learn of it, Charlie. You promised you wouldn't tell."

"And I'll keep my promise. As long as you don't lecture me on my lack of morals." A smudge of rouge darkened his otherwise spotless collar. "Deal?"

She nodded, then leaned into him and pressed her cheek against the rough fabric of his tweed coat. He smelled of stale whiskey and cigar smoke, but she delighted in the steady beat of his heart beneath her ear. He was her confidante, her favorite brother and best friend. She adored his easy, accepting nature, and would feel the lack of his company when he continued his travels beyond Fort Culbertson. A writer by trade, he was headed to Oregon to document the progress of Manifest Destiny for voracious readers back east. His vivid accounts of life on the frontier had graced the pages of many of the nation's most popular magazines. Cultured city dwellers clamored for his tales of outlaws, Indians, and bawdy adventure.

He plucked at her sleeve. "You're looking especially lovely today."

She was wearing her most elegant ensemble: a silk Zouave jacket with matching skirt in an intense emerald green, a color intended to complement her hair. Braid-and-ball fringed her waist-length jacket. The coat's cutaway front revealed a chemisette with tatted collar, pinned at the neck by a scrimshaw brooch, a graduation gift from her father. Undersleeves with lace cuffs, whiter than the Rockies' snow-capped peaks, draped her kidskin gloves. She wore a spoon bonnet of the latest fashion, elaborately trimmed with ribbon, cording, beads, and other passementerie, bought at outrageous expense from Devlin & Company, one of New York's finest ladies' shops.

Ordinarily she preferred more practical attire. She had worn nothing but plain garments throughout her long journey...until today, the last day of her travels.

"Did you dress for him? This man Father wants you to marry?" Charlie asked.

"Certainly not. I spilled tea on my day dress at breakfast and am soaking the stain," she lied. Her day dress was packed away without a spot on it in her trunk, along with her other ordinary skirts and shirtwaists.

Her father would judge her showy costume harshly, she knew; such finery was unsuitable for frontier life. Which was precisely why she had chosen to wear silk and ribbons today, she realized. Dismayed by her father's plans for her, she wanted him to know her feelings, but lacked the courage to voice her displeasure.

"I look ridiculous, don't I?" Her rebellion was childish. She should return to her stateroom immediately and change.

"You look lovely."

Twisting one of the small pompoms on her jacket, she avoided her brother's kind, gray eyes. "Have you met him? This lieutenant of Father's?"

"Yes, last spring. He seemed an upright sort." Charlie looped an arm around her waist and whispered into her ear, "Not at all like me."

She glanced at his roguish smile. "Thank goodness for that."

He chuckled. "Lieutenant Skinner is a lot like our dear brother Bill. A serious man. Bound by duty and honor. I doubt he's ever bet a nickel on cards...or kissed a married woman. Righteous behavior makes a man appealing, doesn't it?"

It should, but the men Dana favored seemed always full of mischief and mystery. They ignored convention and lived life on their own terms. Like Charlie. Like Daniel Waterston.

She stepped away from her brother, shamed anew by her short-lived liaison with her former teacher. Her father would be outraged to learn of it. She withdrew his letter from her pocket and carefully unfolded it. "I'm sorry," she said, more to her father than to Charlie.

"Sorry for what?"

She glanced at Charlie's rumpled suit. One of Mrs. Woolsey's long blonde hairs clung to his sleeve. "I envy your recklessness."

"I know you do. And it's unfortunate the rules of propriety are stricter for women than for men."

"Propriety--" She crushed her father's letter in her fist. "To hell with it!"

"Dana!"

"I mean it, Charlie. It isn't fair. Men are free to do as they please, while women are held to a higher moral standard."

"Rules of morality exist for both sexes and you know it."

"Inequitable ones." She pinned him with an angry stare. "For example, why am I required to have a chaperone while you, my baby brother, are allowed to roam the forecastle alone at all hours of the night?"

"I wasn't alone, remember?"

"You know what I mean."

"I do. Truly. But it is an issue of safety, Dana. I'm the last to champion the rules of society, as you know, but I understand the minds of men, and can say with absolute certainty that a woman is not safe alone in the west. The frontier is a free-for-all. Outside of Fort Culbertson's protective gates, Flatwillow is a sorry collection of saloons, brothels, and gambling establishments. Its citizens are uneducated, violent drunkards, who would eagerly take advantage of your sex if allowed the opportunity. A woman requires a guardian here, a man to stand up for her and speak on her behalf."

"I prefer to speak for myself."

"Is that so?" He glanced at her crumpled letter.

"Yes, it is. I'm perfectly capable of making my own decisions. I don't need a man telling me what to do." She waved the letter at him.

"So you plan to confront Father?" His eyes gleamed at the prospect.

She would not challenge their father, they both knew. Wearing city attire was as far as she dared take her defiance. She may want to say no to Captain Scully's demands, but in truth she loved and trusted her father, and would not disappoint him, not the way Melissa had.

Unwelcome tears filled her eyes. Wanting to hide them from Charlie, she turned to face the foreign landscape. She was surprised to see an Indian there, sitting astride a piebald horse at the river's edge. As he watched the boat pass, his gaze rose to meet hers.

Feathers adorned his long, chestnut hair, which was plaited into a thick braid that hung over his right shoulder and fell nearly to his waist. He wore a buckskin tunic, fringed along the arms. A heavy necklace of gleaming, curved claws ornamented his broad chest.

Bill Jr. had described the local natives in his letters. Savages, he called them, who regularly raided supply convoys. According to him, they had scalped six soldiers last spring, including his boyhood friend, John Petty. They stole the company's horses and left the men to bleed to death in the grass.

"Look, Charlie," she said, both frightened and excited by the Indian's bold stare. "Is he Blackfoot?"

"Definitely not."

"Shoshone?"

"No, nor is he Crow or Cree. He's not an Indian at all, Dana. He is a white man."

"White?" She blinked in surprise. The stranger's face was deeply tanned, his jaw beardless. He wore knee-high leather moccasins. Colorful geometric patterns decorated the cuffs and edging of his leather tunic. "Are you certain?"

"He's sitting on a McClellan cavalry saddle. There is a rifled musket in his carbine boot. Most telling, however, are his officer's britches."

"Then he's a soldier from the fort. A scout, perhaps. Or interpreter?"

"Judging from the steel leg-traps and pelts hanging from his pack, I'd say he's a trapper. A mountain man."

Mountain man? She pictured a satyr: half man, half goat.

"The last of a dying breed," Charlie continued, sounding wistful, "now that beaver are all but hunted out."

Unexpectedly, the stranger released a high-pitched whoop, as frightening and impassioned as a coyote's howl. Startled, Dana dropped her father's letter. It tumbled down to the river, where it was swallowed by the giant paddlewheel.

As if pleased by her loss, the stranger grinned, spurred his horse, and galloped away. He raced across the flat, grassy basin toward Fort Culbertson, which was just coming into view around a bend in the river.

 

Continued in Chapter 2...

 

THE MOUNTAIN MAN
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e-mail: nejake@tds.net