A welcome rush of air cooled the sweat on Mulder's face and neck, and the ground blurred beneath the thudding hooves of his horse. He inhaled deeply, filling his lungs with the grassy, wet scent of the river basin, so different from the pine forest of his mountain home.
The woman on the riverboat captivated his thoughts. Her fiery hair had first caught his attention, but it was her brazen stare that held him spellbound at the water's edge, his heart hammering so loudly he could hear little else. Beguiled by her beauty, he had hooted like an overexcited child.
"She must think I'm an imbecile," he muttered and pressed his thighs to his horse, urging it to gallop faster.
The woman's fashionable attire was a rarity in this rough country, where white women tended to be either poor soldiers' wives or whores at the local brothel. Marriage was the most likely reason she would abandon the comforts of eastern society to move to a wilderness as harsh and unforgiving as Montana. But the young man beside her was a relative, Mulder was certain, not a husband or fiancé. Given their similar features, they had to be brother and sister.
Brothers made formidable chaperones, in Mulder's experience. Not that he was one to shy away from a challenge.
It took him only minutes to reach the village of the Stay-by-the-Fort People, as the Blackfoot called the Indians who camped outside Culbertson's garrisoned walls. He slowed his horse and picked his way around the tepees, searching out the lodge of his friend Few Tails. Curious eyes followed his progress. Several men nodded in greeting as he passed.
Mulder found Few Tail's wife, Good Thunder, sitting outside her tepee, stitching porcupine quills to a child-sized tunic. Waist-length hair fanned her shoulders and a band of braided sweetgrass circled her delicate neck. Fringe and geometric patterns adorned her antelope-skin dress. On her feet she wore the traditional dark-colored moccasins that gave the Blackfoot tribe their name.
Three girls, aged four to ten, squatted beside her. A baby slept in a cradleboard an arm's length away. Good Thunder did not smile or put down her needle when Mulder dismounted, but the oldest girl leapt to her feet. "Oki, oki," she called in greeting as she ran to him.
Her younger sisters scampered after her. They crowded around Mulder, giggling and embracing his legs.
"How are my favorite girls?" he asked, using their language.
"Good," they replied.
"I lost a tooth," the middle one said, showing him the gap.
"So you did!"
"Me, too," the youngest claimed, although she was missing no teeth.
Mulder ruffled her hair. "I see it has grown back already."
The eldest, a willowy girl named Chases The Morning, took hold of his hand. "You have been gone a long time, Mulder."
"Has it been so long?"
"Since snow covered the ground." She gazed up at him, her dark eyes earnest. "You should visit more often."
"I'll try to do better."
She smiled. "Did you bring me something?"
"Maybe." He lifted her easily onto his horse. "Check my saddlebag."
She snaked a hand into the bag and pulled out a porcelain-faced doll dressed in calico and lace. "Oh!" she squealed and held it up for the others to see.
"Share with your sisters." He lowered her to the ground.
Chases The Morning and the other girls ran off, presumably to show their new doll to their friends.
Mulder untied a bundle of ermine tails from his saddle and presented them to Good Thunder.
"Fine quality," she said, fingering them gently. "They will make an impressive headdress."
Mulder set the furs on the ground beside her. "Is Few Tails around?"
She pointed her sewing needle at the closed door flap of her tepee. "He sits with Red Crow. The old man is very ill. It is good you have come."
Red Crow was Few Tails' grandfather, already an old man when Mulder first met him three years ago. According to the tribal elders, he had been a formidable warrior in his youth, but it was his spiritual side that Mulder appreciated most. Sitting at Red Crow's fire, Mulder had listened eagerly as the old man recounted legends about Kut-o'-yis, Sacred Otter, Bear Woman, and others. Red Crow described supernatural beings with magical powers and it was the mystical aspects of these stories that fascinated Mulder most. He wanted to believe the dead sometimes returned to life, that people could transform into animals and back again, and heroes traveled to the heavens to live among the stars.
He pushed the skin door open and ducked into the tepee. A small fire crackled in the hearth, adding to the oppressive August heat. The scent of sage hung in the smoke-filled air. Red Crow lay beneath a heavy buffalo robe, only his head visible. His sunken eyes were closed, his breath raspy and shallow. Enflamed pustules spotted his face.
Mulder recognized the illness. Small-pox. It spread like wildfire wherever white men traveled and had decimated Indian villages throughout the west.
"How is he?" he asked Few Tails, who was sitting cross-legged beside his ailing grandfather.
Few Tails wore only a loincloth and moccasins. His hair was arranged in typical Blackfoot fashion: three long braids and a twisted topknot. His expression was serious, but not sad.
"He travels the good road to the day of quiet."
"Do not be. He has laid much meat at our hearth. He has seen the two faces of truth." Few Tails rose, warmth in his eyes for his old friend. "It is good to see you again, Mulder."
"I wish..." Mulder watched Red Crow struggle for breath. "Chases The Morning told me I don't visit often enough. I see now that she's right."
"Sit." Few Tails extended an arm toward the fire, then retrieved a pipe from a nearby parfleche. "Let us send a voice to the Spirit of the World."
Mulder sat while Few Tails filled the sacred pipe with red willow bark. Four strips of painted hide hung from the pipe's long stem. They symbolized the four quarters of the universe: the black represented the west, where Thunder Beings were said to live and where rain originated; the white stood for the north, a place of great cleansing winds; red was east, home to the day-break star and wisdom; and yellow was south, which sent summer each year. An eagle feather dangled from the pipe, signifying the One Which Is Like A Father. Its presence was a reminder to the smoker that his thoughts should rise as high as an eagle in flight. Bison hide on the mouthpiece paid homage to the earth, the Mother of all things: grasses, trees, birds, animals, and men. Mulder had been told it was only with the power of these forces that a man could face the winds.
Few Tails offered the mouthpiece first to the One above. Smoke drifted heavenward, sending a spiritual voice to the powers that are one power.
"Now let us smoke together so that there may be only good between us." He passed the pipe.
Mulder slipped it between his lips and drew on the stem. The willow bark tasted bitter. He preferred Virginia tobacco, but supplies had dwindled during the war. Like most southern commodities, it was almost impossible to come by now.
"You have a new baby," Mulder said, smoke sifting from his nostrils. He returned the pipe to Few Tails. "Another girl?"
"A son." Pride tinged Few Tails' voice. He sucked on the pipe and held the smoke in his lungs. After a moment, he released his breath and asked, "How goes your search?"
The elk teeth on Few Tails' armband rattled softly as he passed the pipe back to Mulder. "There has been talk about a white woman, around the age you seek, living north of Ookáán River in Cuts To Pieces' lodge. I was told a Frenchman brought her there."
Could the woman be Samantha? Mulder scarcely dared let himself hope.
"Cuts To Pieces -- doesn't sound too friendly. Is he Blackfoot?"
"Damn." Mulder had traded with many different tribes over the years, but never the Cree, primarily because they had been leading war parties against the Blackfoot for as long as Mulder had been friends with Few Tails. "Who's the Frenchman?"
"Pierre Vaillancourt. He is dead. That is all I know."
Mulder bit back another curse. "It's like I'm chasing a ghost."
"Perhaps that is your answer."
"You think my sister is dead?"
"It is possible she was taken by spirits, not men, and is now living in a world where you cannot go."
Mulder set down the pipe. "I've considered the possibility on more than one occasion, believe me."
His recollection of the terrible night Samantha disappeared did not mesh with the generally held belief that she had run away and was subsequently kidnapped by Indians. Instead, he remembered a thunderous roar, like a passing train, shaking his parent's house. Dishes fell from their shelves. Candlesticks tumbled from the mantle. The room filled with blinding, white light. Samantha screamed and Mulder lunged for their father's musket, which hung on the wall above the stone hearth. He could still feel its cold weight in his hands as he fumbled with the powder, loaded the gun, raised it to his shoulder to take aim. But by then, there was nothing to aim at, and his sister was gone.
Later, when his parents returned from their evening in Raleigh, he tearfully described what had happened. They hadn't believed him. No one did. His story was too fantastical, the ravings of a traumatized boy, they thought.
Red Crow moaned in his delirium, drawing Mulder's attention back to the present. Beads of sweat glistened on the old man's fiery cheeks.
Few Tails picked up a scrap of deer hide and tenderly mopped the sick man’s brow.
"When Grandfather was a boy, he had visions of Thunder Beings from the west. When the visions came, they came with terror, like a thunder storm. But after they passed, he was happier and stronger. He said the terror of his visions showed him the greenness of the world, the wideness of it, the earth's many colors. He said this was because wherever the truth of vision comes upon the world, it is like rain, and the world is better after the terror of the storm."
Mulder yearned to experience the truth of Red Crow's boyhood visions. Such insight might lead him to his sister, or, barring that, to peace of mind.
"I have something to show you," Few Tails said, setting aside the cloth. He rose and rummaged through one of several medicine bundles that hung from the tepee's poles. He pulled out an egg-shaped stone about sixteen inches long, which he set heavily in Mulder's hands.
The object's narrower end was broken off and a hardened, fist-sized face with bulging, stone eyes and a duck-like snout peered out from the inside. A small, four-fingered hand gripped the upper edge of the opening.
The face reminded Mulder of drawings he had seen on cave walls in the territories to the south, depictions made by a tribe called Anasazi -- ancient aliens, according to legend, who had disappeared 500 years earlier, vanishing without a trace.
Like his sister.
"What is this thing?"
"No one knows."
"Where did you find it?"
"The Falling Off Place. Near Two Medicine."
Mulder had visited that particular eroded mountainside last spring after hearing stories about footprints of giant lizards pressed into the stone there.
"Care to trade for it?"
"Perhaps." Few Tails eyed the leather scabbard hanging from Mulder’s belt. It held an Ames rifleman’s knife with a twelve-inch blade, carved wooden handle, and brass crossguard, worth more than twenty fine beaver pelts.
Mulder withdrew the knife and presented it handle first to Few Tails. "Take it."
Few Tails chuckled. “It is lucky you are a good trapper, Mulder, because you are not such a good trader.”
Mulder managed a wry smile. He was called Crazy Fox by most of the soldiers at the fort, in part because he would trade utilitarian goods for objects they deemed worthless. His mountain cabin was filled with amulets, totems, bone rattles, buffalo-calling stones, and other dubious treasures for which he had spent a small fortune.
"An ordinary hunting knife...there's no magic in that, Few Tails. But this" -- Mulder lifted the stone -- "has possibilities."
He shifted the object to the crook of his arm and stood. “I’ll be back to see how Red Crow is doing after I finish my business at the fort.”
“Good. We will smoke the pipe again and roast some meat. Maybe trade some more. I think I would like to own your horse and your rifle. Perhaps you would like another stone.”
Continued in Chapter 3...
THE MOUNTAIN MAN