No one practiced marching drills on the parade ground. No rifles protruded from the blockhouse portholes. Not a single soldier loitered outside the barracks. The only sign of life in the fort came from the rhythmic clang of a smithy’s hammer and the scratch-scratch of a clerk’s broom on the boardwalk in front of the trade store. Taking advantage of the lull, Mulder hobbled across the quadrangle to the livery as quickly as his injured leg would allow. Dr. Scully scurried after him, her skirts snapping in the dusty breeze.
“If you insist on going, at least let me help you.” Her fingers circled his wrist. “Lean on me.”
He pulled free of her grasp. “Go back, Dr. Scully. You’ll be arrested for aiding and abetting the enemy if you’re caught leaving with me.” He scanned the fort, searching every shadowed doorway for anyone who might try to prevent his escape, and saw no one.
The livery turned out to be as deserted as the rest of Culbertson. A low snort and stamp of a hoof indicated a horse or two remained in their stalls, but most stood empty.
“Where is everyone?” Dr. Scully’s voice reverberated softly through the rafters.
No soldiers. Almost no horses. Something was going on. Something big. And the timing could not be better.
“Your father sent for Skinner earlier. It sounded urgent.”
“You saw Walter?”
“Yes.” Mulder continued down the center aisle. The cool air carried the sweet scent of horses and hay. And freedom.
“Was he looking for me?” she asked.
“Uh...” It was not the time for this conversation. Mulder shuffled past several vacant stalls, one swayback nag, and a fidgety donkey. Shit, was he going to have to walk all the way to Nine Pipe Ridge? “I doubt he came to see me.”
“Did he say what he wanted?”
“No, but he looked healthy, so I assume it was personal.”
What did that mean? Maybe it *was* time for this conversation. “There a problem between you two?”
“Why would you ask that?”
Because you’re not wearing his ring, he thought, and you’re clearly holding something back.
He spotted Ponoká. “There you are!”
The horse nosed Mulder’s hand when he reached over the gate to give him a pat. A blanket and saddle hung on the half wall between stalls. A bridle dangled from a nail stuck in a support post.
Dr. Scully wandered further down the row of stalls while Mulder saddled his horse, which took longer than he would have liked. Lifting the saddle onto Ponoká’s back sent a stab of pain to his wounded shoulder. Cinching the girth started his arm throbbing. By the time he had the horse ready to ride, Dr. Scully was leading a saddled bay out into the sunshine.
“The front gate will be guarded,” she said, when he joined her on the street.
The gate was closed, but there would be at least two armed sentries outside. Probably others in the blockhouse.
“We’re not going out the front.” He tugged Ponoká in the opposite direction.
“You planning to jump the fence?”
“No, we’re taking the servants’ entrance.”
He plodded around the livery to the small Indian gate beside the trade store.
A heavy wooden crossbar locked the door from the inside. He slid it as quietly as possible through its iron cleats and inched the gate open. To his relief, no one waited on the other side. He led Ponoká through. Dr. Scully followed with the bay. He shut the door behind them, then swung clumsily up into his saddle, suppressing a groan as he settled onto Ponoká’s back.
“You wanted proof, Dr. Scully? Well, this is it.”
“Proof of what?” She mounted the bay.
“Fate!” He spurred his horse to a gallop.
They rode west, following the river as it snaked to the foothills. They did not slow until they reached the base of Bigtooth Mountain. Mulder avoided his usual route to Nine Pipe Ridge. Instead, he selected a steep, zigzagging deer trail through a forest overgrown with hemlock and larch. Perfect cover for two fugitives.
The higher they climbed, the better Mulder felt. He filled his lungs with cool mountain air. The spicy scent of pine soothed his nerves and quieted his thudding heart. He paused at an overlook to gaze down into the valley. An eagle circled the treetops far below. Mountain ranges rippled across the landscape like waves on an ocean. They turned misty-blue in the distance, their snowcapped peaks resembling frothy breakers.
“You're at home here.” Dr. Scully studied him, not the magnificent scenery.
Did she not feel it? The peacefulness of this place? The altitude made it easier to think. To see the truth. To be who he needed to be.
“The Blackfoot believe Na’pi, Old Man, made these mountains,” he said, feeling a sudden need to share the ancient creation myth with her. “He made the prairies and rivers, added brush and timber and waterfalls, and painted the rocks red, creating the world you see here. He planted berries and fruit and roots in the forests and covered the plains with grass for the animals to eat. When he made the animals, he began down there.” Mulder pointed to the distant prairie. “The antelope thrived on the plain. Their long legs carried them easily over the flatland. But the bighorn sheep were a different story; they were slow and awkward, ill-fitted for the environment. So Na’pi led them into the mountains, where they leapt over rocks and climbed the highest crags with ease. ‘You were made to live here,’ he said. ‘This is the place that suits you.’”
Did she understand what he was trying to say?
“The place that suits you,” she murmured. Her gaze dropped to the lowlands, flat and featureless.
“I belong up here, Dr. Scully. Do you?”
“You’re my patient, Mr. Mulder,” she said matter-of-factly, “and until you’re feeling fit again, I belong with you.”
“And after that? When I’m recovered? What then?”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” She gathered her reins and nudged the bay’s sides with her heels. “Right now, let’s get you to your cabin so you can rest.”
* * *
“Six dead Noohkiitsitapi are of no concern to the People,” said Whirlwind Chaser, a stocky man of middle age. Although blind in one eye, he had a reputation for seeing more clearly than braves half his age. “Unless their deaths came at the hands of our enemies, the Asinaa. Then there is reason for concern.”
Eight Piikáni elders sat in a semi-circle around a cold hearth in Kicking Horse’s tepee. They nodded in agreement and waited for Whirlwind Chaser to say more. He gripped a Cree arrow in one hand and a Talking Stick in the other. Possession of the stick granted him the right to speak his Sacred Point of View uninterrupted. Made of birch, a symbol for truth, it was painted yellow for knowledge and black for clarity and focus. It was wrapped with a strip of rabbit fur to encourage the Council to listen with long ears.
Whirlwind Chaser raised the arrow for all to see. The shaft, crafted from a slender service berry shoot, was triple feathered in typical Cree fashion. “I found this lodged in a buckthorn in the Akópskaa Swamp. I also found three dead Asinaa nearby, killed by guns. I recognized one of the men -- a cousin to my son’s second wife. He was from Cuts To Piece’s band.”
Unease filled the tepee like wind in a winter storm. The Asinaa -- the Cree -- were old enemies of the People. Kicking Horse feared his tribe was in grave danger.
The tepee door flapped open and Spotted Rabbit poked her head inside. Dread burned in her young eyes.
“What is it, Itan?” Kicking Horse asked, knowing his daughter would not interrupt a council meeting unless there was great need.
“Soldiers are coming.”
The councilmen scrambled to their feet. Kicking Horse led them outside.
What they saw frightened them more than a thousand Cree arrows. A band of Long Knives -- more than sixty soldiers -- approached from the south, the direction of the fort. Women and children fled from their path as they rode into the village.
A fierce lieutenant spearheaded the company. Kicking Horse recognized him beneath his decorated uniform: Josiah Beam, the man who had delivered firearms several days ago. He had arrived on Mulder’s lively pinto that day. Proof, he claimed, that Mulder had sent him.
“Why does Mulder not come himself?” the chief had asked.
“He’s sick. Maybe dying.”
“I will send my daughters to his cabin with medicine.”
“They won’t find him there. He’s at the fort being treated by a white doctor, a woman.”
Josiah Beam had been dressed in buckskins, yet his clothes did not carry the typical stench of a white trapper. His hands and nails were clean, his face recently shaved, and mustache neatly trimmed. His tanned brow did not match the line of his beaver-skin cap.
It matched the cavalry hat he wore now.
Whirlwind Chaser whispered in the chief’s ear, “This liar is sent by Coyote,” implying the lieutenant was a shape-shifter, a trickster.
The arms delivery had been a trap and Kicking Horse berated himself now for thinking he could outwit this trickster. He had been too eager to augment his meager supply of weapons after losing three Winchesters and an Enfield in a recent raid. Without guns, the People were at the mercy of enemy tribes and the Long Knives.
“Oki,” the chief solemnly greeted the soldiers when they halted their horses in front of him.
The People gathered around him; everyone wanted to hear what the soldiers had to say. Spotted Rabbit squeezed through the crowd to stand next to her father. She was quaking like her namesake, breathing hard.
The lieutenant motioned to his interpreter to speak for him, although he had spoken in the People’s language when he posed as Josiah Beam.
“The lieutenant asks Chief Kicking Horse to tell him what he knows about six dead miners from the Soldier Village, shot by arrows, scalped, and left to be eaten by buzzards,” said the interpreter, a scrawny man from the Komonóítapiikoan tribe.
“Tell the lieutenant we do not involve ourselves in the matters of white men who dig for yellow rocks, so we know nothing of their deaths. He should ask the Asinaa what they know.”
“The Asinaa? They do not typically travel this far south,” the interpreter said.
“No, not typically. But many foreigners come to our lands uninvited.” Kicking Horse glowered at the soldiers.
Sweat glistened on the lieutenant’s face. He squinted at the chief. Cleared his throat. When he spoke it was with an impatient voice and he used the People’s language, dispensing with the interpreter. “Chief Kicking Horse, there is a treaty between our peoples.”
“I have not forgotten it,” Kicking Horse said. How could he? The treaty permitted whites to construct roads, establish telegraph lines and military posts, use any and all materials found on Indian land, build houses for agencies, missions, schools, farms, shops, mills, stations, and to permanently occupy as much land as they deemed necessary for their various purposes, including the use of wood for fuel and land for grazing. In addition, all lakes and streams in the Piikáni territory were to be available to whites forever.
And what was promised in return? Twenty thousand dollars annually, for ten years, to be spent on the establishment of agriculture and the promotion of Christianity among the tribes. These were not things the People needed or wanted. But for the sake of peace, they had accepted the white men’s terms.
The lieutenant raised his voice for all to hear. “Article Eleven: ‘The tribes acknowledge their dependence on the Government of the United States, and promise to be friendly with all citizens thereof, and to commit no depredations or other violence upon such citizens.’”
“We have not broken the treaty.” Kicking Horse met the lieutenant’s solemn stare. “Have you?”
Both men knew the truth. The treaty stated that the Long Knives would protect the Blackfoot against the unlawful acts of white men. And yet a confrontation between the white soldiers and the People at Grass Creek last month, led by a hot-headed lieutenant named Scully, resulted in seven dead, including four women and children, all Piikáni.
“Search the tepees,” the trickster ordered.
“What are you looking for?” Kicking Horse objected.
Anger boiled in Kicking Horse’s gut. They both knew the guns were there and would be found. He stood with fists clenched, watching as the soldiers swung from their saddles to ransack his people’s homes. More than two-hundred men, women, and children watched with him, jaws set, eyes burning with hate. At least a third were able-bodied braves. Experienced warriors. But without guns, they were no match for sixty armed soldiers.
The sun melted into the horizon, silhouetting the tepees and casting claw-like shadows across the village. Lodgepole pines topped the nearby bluff, sharp as wolves’ teeth. Crickets screeched in the grass beside Miin Creek. The current gurgled like a drowning animal.
The Lieutenant remained on his horse while his men plundered the camp. Kicking Horse thought he glimpsed a flash of regret in the white man’s eyes. But the sun sank lower and shadows swallowed the lieutenant's true face.
The villagers remained silent and transfixed. The soldiers' riderless horses shifted and stamped the dusty ground. The smell of loss and defeat lodged in the chief’s tightening throat.
A distinctive cluck and hoot of a burrowing owl drew his attention to the bluff. The blood chilled in his veins. The sound was a courtship call, but the owl’s mating season had passed more than three moons ago.
Spotted Rabbit uttered a quiet groan and fell against him. Kicking Horse turned to see what was wrong. She stared up at him, frightened, in pain, then her knees folded and she collapsed to the ground. A slender shaft protruded from her chest. Service berry. Triple feathered. Blood spidered across her tunic. Her eyes ceased blinking. Her limbs fell limp.
In the next instant, a thousand Cree warriors poured down upon the village like ants over a carcass. Horse hooves drummed the earth, a terrible thunder that snatched the chief’s breath from his lungs. A great plume of dust rose in the attackers’ wake, a copper smudge in the darkening sky.
The lieutenant barked orders to his men. The soldiers abandoned their plundering to defend themselves. Gunshots rang out. The blasts were answered by Cree war cries. Piikáni braves scrambled for weapons. Women and children ran to the creek in search of a place to hide. Arrows rained down as thick as sleet.
Kicking Horse reached for his daughter, thinking he might somehow pluck the arrow from her body and bring her back to life. But a spear tore through his chest. Blood gushed from the wound. Filled his lungs. He dropped to one knee. Angry bees buzzed in his head. Stung the back of his throat. His vision blurred and he fumbled blindly for Spotted Rabbit. He grabbed her lifeless hand.
We will travel to Sand Hills together, he thought before no more thoughts could come.
* * *
It was nearly sunset when Dana and Mulder arrived at the clearing in front of his cabin. Although sullen, he appeared physically stronger than she expected, given their long, arduous ride. He had chosen a challenging course and they made few stops.
She dismounted and went to him, intending to help him off his horse. But he ignored her outstretched hand and slid from the saddle on his own.
The moment he tried to put weight on his injured leg, his knee buckled. She grabbed him around the waist.
“I’ve got you,” she said, swaying as she tried to keep them both upright.
“I’m all right,” he insisted, teeth gritted.
“No you’re not.”
She propelled him toward the cabin, grateful her own ankle had healed days ago.
The horses wandered downhill to drink from the stream.
“The saddles...” He twisted to point in the direction of the horses.
“We’ll take care of them later.”
He seemed to regain his footing and corral his pain by the time they reached the cabin. At the front door, he pushed free of her and entered on his own.
“It’s cold in here,” she said, regretting there had been no time to grab a shawl before she left.
“I’ll lay a fire.”
“No, you sit. I’ll do it.”
“No, you won’t!” He held up a finger of warning. “I’ll do it.”
While he arranged tinder and kindling in the fireplace, she lit the oil lamp. It cast a golden glow onto his cluttered table with its bracelet of human teeth, Smith and Beck microscope, and tattered doll with a hatpin stuck through its chest. She caressed the leather-bound volume of "Incidents in My Life" by Daniel Dunglas Home.
Everything was exactly as she remembered it, yet everything seemed changed since her last visit. It was as if she were looking at Mr. Mulder’s life through new eyes.
“Did you build this place yourself?” she asked, thinking of the immaculate home Walter Skinner had erected on the plain. For her.
“No, I inherited it. Sort of.”
He struck a match and held it to the tinder. The flame took hold. The room seemed suddenly warmer, although surely it was an illusion.
She scanned the thick log walls chinked with moss and mud. Cobwebs draped the low ceiling. The uneven floorboards were gray with dust. All the grime and clutter were off-putting, the smell musky, almost feral. It seemed a rough, disorderly place to live and yet she felt unexpectedly at home here.
He fed logs into the fire until it roared. “I stumbled onto this place during a blizzard. It looked abandoned. Desperate to get out of the cold, I kicked in the front door. The owner was sitting right here, eyes boring into me, rifle pointed at my chest.” He looked over his shoulder at her. “Scared the shit out of me, until I realized he was dead, frozen solid.”
“He’d left a note.” Mulder smiled. “It said, ‘Bury my body and house and all innit is yourn.’”
“Who was he?”
“A trapper named Wildcat Joe, according to the Blackfoot. He’d been living up here for decades.”
“So you buried him and decided to live in his house?”
“I didn’t have anything better to do at the time.” Mulder pulled off his boots and wiggled the toes on his left foot. “But I couldn’t bury him right away, not until the ground thawed, so I put him in the woodshed for the winter. Stacked wood around him for three months.”
“Now you’re pulling my leg.”
“It’s the truth, I swear.”
His eyes glittered mischievously in the half dark, while the glow of the fire shone around him like a halo. Devil or angel? Which was this beguiling mountain man?
Perhaps a little of both.
He rose and came toward her. Her heart beat faster with each halting step he took. When he was no more than an arm’s length away, he stumbled. She grabbed him, but the momentum of his fall propelled them both to the wall, where she ended up pinned between his chest and the strange charcoal drawing of alien visitors.
His heat, the weight of his body pressing against hers, the gap at his neck where his borrowed military jacket exposed a triangle of bare skin -- all these aroused in her a need to touch him. She imagined caressing his rough cheek, his smooth brow, his full lips.
She rose on tiptoes and pressed her mouth softly against his. His scent filled her as a sea breeze fills a sail. He smelled foreign and wild, like the alluring mountain country in which he lived. She breathed him into her lungs. Tasted him on her tongue.
He broke their kiss. Put up a hand. His muscled chest rose and fell, each frantic inhalation crushing her against the wall.
“Stop,” he whispered. The word carried almost no sound at all.
The fire crackled and snapped behind his back.
She was desperate to feel his lips on hers again. She craned to kiss him, but he remained frustratingly out of reach.
“Please,” he begged, “we can’t do this. You belong to someone else.”
“I belong to no one.” Irritation threatened to displace her passion.
“You’re engaged to be married.”
“I saw the announcement.”
“The one you placed in the Picayune.”
“I didn’t place any--”
Her mother! It had to be. No one else knew about the ring. No one else would be so presumptuous or meddlesome as to put a statement in the newspaper.
“It wasn’t me. I had nothing to do with that announcement. I’ve accepted no marriage proposal. Walter asked me, that much is true, but I told him I needed more time. That’s how we left it.”
Mulder frowned. “He believes you’re marrying him.”
“I promised him nothing. I swear it.”
“You refused him outright?”
“I told him I didn’t love him.”
Mulder’s eyes shimmered with what appeared to be hope. He licked his lips. Studied her face.
“Tell me what you want me to do,” he said at last, his voice thinned with longing, “because I have already overstepped my bounds and if I continue, I will finish what I start.”
She gave a hesitant nod. “I understand.”
“Once done, this cannot be undone.”
“Then tell me. Put it into words. What do you want, Dr. Scully? Think carefully. What do you really want?”
“I want...” Back at Culbertson, she had been unsure and confused about everything. But here, high in the mountains, where the altitude seemed to addle her senses -- or clear her head for the very first time -- she wanted...
It was all the encouragement he needed. He attacked her with a fervor she could not have anticipated. His mouth pressed hungrily against hers. His tongue teased her lips, slipped between her teeth. Broad palms skated over her body, searing hot. He squeezed her breasts, kneaded her buttocks, her thighs.
Yanking up her skirt, he snaked a hand between her legs. Found the opening in her bloomers.
She gripped his shoulders and held her breath. Blood thundered in her ears so loudly she feared her heart would explode. When his fingers prodded her opening, she gasped and jerked. Her head hit the wall. Parchment tore; the charcoal rubbing ripped in two. The lower half remained pinned to the wall by her shoulders. The upper half seesawed to the floor.
He dipped a finger into her. A bolt of pleasure sizzled upward through her body, ending in a spray of sparks that prickled her breasts and caused her nipples to tighten. This was the farthest she had ever gone with a man, well beyond her prior experiences of passionate kisses and flushed cheeks. She pressed her sex against his hand, seeking to increase the pleasure it provided, trying to remember to breathe.
“More.” Her voice sounded like a stranger’s, husky and thick with desire.
Transfixed, he watched her. She mewled when he removed his hand to fumble with the buttons on his trousers. A knee slid between her thighs. He shoved an arm beneath her backside, hoisted her off her feet.
This is not my husband, she thought. What they were about to do was a sin.
“Don’t injure yourself, Mr. Mulder!” she shouted, too loudly, given their close proximity.
“Injure myself?” He appeared baffled.
He dismissed her concern with a shake of his head and, fueled by ardor, lifted her until her hips were even with his. Her back scraped the rough log wall. The lower half of the charcoal rubbing crumpled and fell to the floor.
His breathing was ragged, from exertion or passion, she was not sure. Would his effort cause him to hemorrhage internally? Delay his recovery?
“Wrap your legs around me,” he urged, undaunted by the possible consequences of his actions.
She hooked her ankles behind his back.
Sweat beaded his brow, glistened in the crevices of his neck. He pushed into her.
The pressure was startling. Then a jabbing pain. A burning deep inside. She cried out.
His movements stopped. Alarm filled his eyes.
He knew it now: she was a virgin...had been a virgin...until this very moment. She had given herself to him, a man she barely knew. What did that make her? A sinner? A fool?
And what of him? Did he love her at all? Or did he want only this? And did it matter either way?
His Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat. He opened his mouth to speak, maybe scold her, or praise her, tell the truth, or lie.
She placed a finger to his lips, silencing him before he could spoil the moment and this gift she could give only once.
“It’s done,” she said. “Don’t stop.”
Uncertainty haunted his eyes.
“Don’t stop,” she repeated, hugging him to her, tightening the grip of her legs around him. At this moment, she felt no loss. No regret. The choice was hers. At this moment, it felt right and good.
He began to rock into her, gently this time. A release of slick blood eased her discomfort. He tenderly kissed her lips, her chin, her neck. Pleasure replaced pain, until finally, in the end, she found herself floating on a swell of ecstasy.
Continued in Chapter 15
THE MOUNTAIN MAN