The Mountain Man by aka "Jake"

Chapter 3

"There's your new home." Charlie pointed over the rail at the fort.

Dana's heart sank. The garrison was little more than a dilapidated trading post. Its timber blockade with humble gate offered seemingly scant protection against attack. A square, two-story bastion anchored the northwest corner and overlooked the mining community of Flatwillow, located a quarter mile upriver. Portholes for cannon and rifles pierced the blockhouse walls. On the roof, a flag hung limply on its pole, its stars and strips proclaiming Montana Territory in the name of the United States of America.

Dozens of tepees dotted the landscape around the fort, their hide coverings decorated with fanciful symbols. Wood smoke curled skyward from their upper openings, spreading a resin scent across the river basin. Deerskin-clad men and women went about their business -- scraping animal hides, drying fish, conversing -- while naked children splashed in the shallows at the river's shore, their happy shrieks riding the afternoon air like birdsong. To the east, a herd of pinto ponies grazed on acres of undulating grass.

The paddlewheel slowed as the Dauntless neared the fort. A small gathering of people waited on the dock, eager to collect shipments.

"There's Bill! And Father!" Charlie gave an enthusiastic wave.

Bill Jr. returned the greeting, while Captain Scully remained unmoved, shoulders back, expression stern. Both men wore blue army frock-coats, swords, and crimson sashes. Yellow shoulder straps and trouser welts indicated their status as cavalry officers. The brims of their nearly identical hats were curled up on the right -- their sword arm side.

It had been four long years since Dana had kissed her father goodbye and six since she had last seen Bill Jr. They looked older and rougher, their faces weathered by life spent outdoors. Dana raised a gloved hand and a fleeting smile cracked her father's sober countenance, evidence of the deep love he held for her and all his children. He was a family man at heart, she knew, never happier than when wife, sons, and daughters were at home, safe beneath his roof.

Her fears of the future ebbed. Despite his plans for her, her father represented security and happiness, and she was overjoyed to see him.

A quarter hour later, they were standing together on the dock. Bill pumped Charlie's hand while Dana hugged her father.

"How is my Magnet?" he asked, using his pet name for her, borrowed from her favorite book, "The Pathfinder," by James Fennimore Cooper. Tenderness tempered his customarily gruff tone.

"Cap," she whispered, also referring to a character from Cooper's book. Her throat tightened and she was unable to say more. She kissed his cheek and was delighted to feel the scratchy tickle of his whitening beard.

"Hey, what about me?" Bill Jr. interrupted too soon. He tugged her from her father's embrace and hugged her hard, lifting her to her toes. "How are you, Sis?"

"Quite well, now that I'm here. It's been a long journey. Not that Charlie hasn't kept me entertained."

"I can imagine." Bill Jr. set her back on her feet and eyed his brother with suspicion.

Cap frowned, too. Aware of his son's weaknesses, he often judged Charlie harshly. "Thank you for bringing her safely to me, Charles," he said stiffly.

"My pleasure, sir."

Uncomfortable with the tension between her favorite men, Dana asked, "Where's Mother? I thought she would be here to greet us."

"She's home preparing for your arrival." Cap relaxed a little. "She's talked of little else for weeks."

"I hope you're both hungry," Bill said. "Mother has made a veritable feast for your homecoming. There's enough food in the house to feed the entire regiment!"

"Sounds wonderful," Dana said. "Breakfast was hours ago, and it was little more than cold toast and black tea."

"Then let's get you home and settled," Cap said. "Boys, see to the baggage while I deliver your sister to her mother."

"Yes, sir." Bill Jr. corralled Charlie with an outstretched arm and steered him back to the boat.

Dana slipped a gloved hand through her father's arm. "It's wonderful to see you again, Father."

"I'm pleased to hear you say so, Magnet. I was worried." He guided her up the incline to the dusty road that led to the fort.

"Worried? Why?"

"Your last letter...and this city frock you're wearing." He squinted with obvious disapproval. "I know you, Dana. You're not happy to be here."

"That's not true. I'm delighted to be with my family again."

"But you have no desire to settle in Montana."

"I had other plans, Father."

"Foolhardy ones."

His judgment stung. Rebellion rose in her gut, but she refused to argue with him and spoil their reunion. "You mentioned the fort has an infirmary where I might work. Could we visit it on our way to the house?"

"Dana, your mother is eager to see you. A tour can wait until later."

The road curved uphill to Culbertson's fourteen-foot-high, timber gate. The gate was propped open and guarded by two armed soldiers. Captain Scully returned their salutes without breaking stride as he led Dana into the fort.

The blockhouse cast a shadow over the entrance and Dana felt a chill as they stepped inside.

"Shade feels good." Cap mopped his brow with the back of one gloved hand.

"The heat must be hard on the men."

"Not half as grueling as the cold in winter. Montana is a land of extremes, Dana. A man must be tough to survive here. A woman, too." He eyed her silk dress and lace chemisette.

She raised her chin, but remained silent on the subject as they stepped back into the hot sun and continued their stroll. He wanted only what was best for her, she reminded herself.

The road split at the garrison's broad, grassy quadrangle. The western avenue led to a livery stable, storage warehouses, and the enlisted men's quarters. A sergeant shouted orders to a unit of soldiers on the green. Beyond them at the far end of the parade ground stood a collection of tidy, two-story plank houses.

"Who lives there?" she asked.

"We do. And the other officers' families. A representative of AFC, too." Cap directed her to the eastern promenade. He set a steady pace, identifying various buildings as they passed. "Carpenter's shop. Kitchen and mess." He gestured broadly. The aroma of boiled onions and marrow soup floated on the scorched air, causing Dana's stomach to growl.

Sparks flew as a blacksmith shaped horseshoes outside his shanty, his hammer clanging loudly against the anvil. He worked without shade; sweat streaked his flushed face and pooled in the creases of his sooty neck.

A sign proclaiming "The Flatwillow Picayune" hung above the window of the next establishment. A wizened man with muttonchops and spectacles waved to her from behind the glass.

"A newspaper?" Dana asked.

"We're not as uncivilized as you might imagine." Cap nodded at the man without smiling. "Watch your step," he warned Dana.

She veered left, narrowly avoiding a pile of fresh manure. Her billowing skirt stirred a cloud of buzzing flies.

A jutting porch roof protected sacks of feed outside the trade store, the busiest place in the fort, it seemed. Men and women bustled in and out of the shop, carrying parcels and loading horses and wagons. Axe handles, picks, and shovels leaned against the outer wall, on display beside the open door. The shopkeeper stood on the boardwalk, barking orders to a broomstick-thin boy who scurried to clear space for an incoming shipment from the Dauntless. Beyond the threshhold, bolts of fabric in rainbow colors brightened the interior like baskets of flowers at a funeral.

A lone Indian exited the store with an armload of dry goods. He headed for a narrow gate in the stockade fence beside the shop, where a knot of uniformed men loitered in the heat. A straight-backed lieutenant wearing spectacles and a grim expression inspected the Indian's packages, then opened the gate and released him from the fort. Another feathered man was beckoned inside. A queue of Indians waited their turn beyond the little door.

"What's going on?" Dana asked.

"They come here to trade."

"So why not let them in?" The heat was intense and the line appeared long.

"We've found it prudent to manage their numbers inside the fort."

Dana recognized the next buckskin-clad man allowed through the gate; he was the stranger she had mistaken for a savage on the plain earlier, the mountain man. He carried his saddlebags slung over one shoulder. Half a dozen glossy fox pelts dangled from his left fist. He paused to converse with the soldiers.

Something he said made them guffaw...all but the straight-backed lieutenant, who remained stone-faced.

"Lieutenant Skinner," Cap called out and the soldiers jerked to attention at the sound of their captain's voice.

Dana's heart skipped a beat. Skinner was the name of the man her father wanted her to marry. Was she about to meet her future husband?

She looked more closely at the serious-faced lieutenant. His clean-shaven jaw was firmly set, his mouth a grim line below a neatly trimmed mustache. His nose had clearly been broken more than once. Broad-shouldered, with the neck of a bull, he appeared a formidable man.

Unlike the soldiers, the mountain man showed no deference to her father's rank. In fact, he paid scant attention to the captain at all, but boldly raked Dana from shoes to bonnet with his gaze. A crooked smile played on his full lips and his hazel eyes sparkled with blatant curiosity.

"At ease." Cap approached the men, then clapped Skinner's arm. "How fortuitous to run into you here, Lieutenant. Allow me to introduce my daughter, Dana."

"Miss Scully." Skinner removed his hat. His bald scalp was several shades paler than his tanned brow. Not a speck of dirt marred his dark uniform or spit-shined boots, despite the clouds of dust that rose like mist from the baked ground, hinting that this seemingly chance encounter might be no coincidence at all. "My pleasure."

Dana nodded, feeling awkward and more than a little nervous to be meeting the man her father had chosen for her. "Pleased to make your acquaintance, Lieutenant."

If the lieutenant was equally nervous, he did not show it. "The Captain has told me a great deal about you, Miss Scully."

"Is that so?" What had Cap told this "upright" man, as Charlie had described the lieutenant? That she was headstrong and would require a strict husband, a man capable of reining her in, breaking her of all her unacceptable habits, like thinking for herself or speaking her mind? Lieutenant Skinner certainly appeared up to the task. His expression was impenetrable, his physique daunting.

The mountain man cleared his throat, softly demanding their attention and saving her from blurting out her fears.

"Pardon my manners," Skinner apologized. "Miss Scully, this is a friend: Mr. Mulder."

Mulder bowed slightly. "Tsá kaanistáópííhpa?" The foreign words slipped from his tongue like warm honey into a teacup.

Cap glowered at him, face reddening. "Mr. Mulder! We are not heathens sitting around a campfire in the wilderness. You are in the company of a lady. I insist you speak proper English."

"My apologies if I have offended the lady." Mulder appeared amused by the captain's ire. "I merely inquired after her health."

"I'm quite well, thank you, Mr. Mulder," Dana said. "And you?"

"Soká'pi."

Cap cleared his throat. His scowl deepened.

"It means 'good,'" the mountain man explained.

"Are you fluent in the local dialect?" she asked.

"I know enough to get by."

"Could you teach me a phrase or two?"

"Dana!" Cap protested, precisely as she had known he would.

"What harm is there, Father? I've come all this way to live in the west; certainly I can learn a bit of the native language."

"A lady has scant need to speak Blackfoot or any other Indian dialect, no matter where she is living." Cap sniffed with obvious disdain.

She turned away from him, smiled sweetly at the mountain man, and asked, "Please, Mr. Mulder? One phrase? A simple one that won't cause injury to my tongue."

His gaze flitted to her mouth and he cocked an eyebrow. Had her request shocked him?

Frankly, she had shocked herself a little. One didn't speak of one's tongue to a stranger. Particularly to a man. But something about him had emboldened her.

"As you wish, Miss. And so as not to cause undue strain to that tongue of yours," -- his slanting grin widened -- "let's start with an easy one: inihkatsimat."

"In-ih-kat-si-mat." Her mouth twisted awkwardly around the unfamiliar syllables. "What does it mean?"

Skinner supplied the translation. "It means 'help.'"

"This is a ridiculous waste of time!" Cap blustered.

"Not at all, Father," Dana said. "'Help' is a very handy word to know. Teach me another, Mr. Mulder."

"Stop this unseemly exchange, Dana," -- Cap glared at her -- "before you give my men the wrong impression."

Dana glanced at the lieutenant. He appeared uncomfortable, it was true, but he had seemed that way from the start. Was he offended by her brazenness?

Mr. Mulder clearly was not. Smiling, he said, "Some other time perhaps, Miss Scully."

"I would enjoy it, Mr. Mulder, and hope to see you again soon." In an effort to win back her father's approval, she addressed Lieutenant Skinner. "I hope we will have the opportunity to meet again as well, sir, so we might become better acquainted."

"That is my hope as well, Miss Scully." He gave a respectful bow.

"No time like the present, Lieutenant. Would you join us for dinner?" Cap asked.

"Father..." Dana began to object. She had hoped to spend time alone with her family on their first evening together, not entertaining a stranger. Particularly this serious man. Was Cap really so eager to marry her off?

Lieutenant Skinner unexpectedly came to her rescue. "Miss Scully has had a long journey, sir. Perhaps she is in need of a few days rest before being assailed by dinner guests."

"That's most understanding of you," she said, relieved. "Father, might we invite the lieutenant to join us for dinner on Saturday instead?"

"But your mother was expecting--" Cap's jaw snapped shut, giving away that this meeting was no chance encounter, just as she had suspected.

An uncomfortable silence followed. Mr. Mulder, who had been listening to their exchange with open interest, took the opportunity to speak.

"You dropped something earlier, Miss Scully," he said. "A letter, was it?"

"Yes, I'm afraid it was."

"What's this?" Cap found his voice again. "What is he talking about, Dana?"

"It was nothing, Father. I spotted him on his horse beside the river as we were coming in. Which reminds me, I owe you an apology, Mr. Mulder."

"For what offense?" Mulder asked, clearly surprised.

"I mistook you for a savage when I saw you earlier today. I thought...given your appearance...well, I'm sorry for my presumption."

He did not appear the least slighted. "I don't take your confusion as an insult." His eyes twinkled like a mischievous boy's. "After all, it's not the natives who are the savages here."

The barb was clearly aimed at her father, who bridled. "You would do well to remember where you are," Cap warned.

"You're as much a trespasser here as I, sir," Mulder said calmly. "We stand upon Indian land."

"Hogwash. Montana Territory belongs to the United States government."

"Who stole it from the Blackfoot."

The veins in Cap's temples began to throb visibly. "Providence generously supplied this great continent for the development of our country's liberty and federated self-government."

"I've heard that rumor." Living alone in the mountains had evidently stripped this stranger of his manners.

"You mock me, Mr. Mulder. Expansionism is both obvious and certain, we both know it. Oregon and Texas are proof of it."

"The Indians and the Mexicans might take a different point of view."

"You speak like a traitor! Is that your intent?"

To Dana's surprise, Mulder did not back down. He took a step forward to stand toe to toe with the captain. He pitched his voice low. "Your beliefs do not grant you the right to kill innocent women and children, Captain."

Bill Jr.'s letters had described numerous raids against the Indians, but always in retaliation for serious offences. There was no mention of attacks on women or children. Dana could not imagine her father allowing such heinous crimes to take place under his command. Mr. Mulder must be misinformed.

"I'll not argue with a man who has so little understanding of the situation." Disgust pinched Cap's brow. "You consort with murderous heathens, yet have the audacity to come to my fort to conduct your business -- business which I have every reason to believe lends aid to my enemies. I demand you leave here at once and not return. You are no longer welcome at Culbertson."

"I'll go happily on my way as soon as I've sold my furs." He raised the pelts.

"You'll not receive one cent for those goods, Mr. Mulder. Not here."

"In that case, consider them a gift." He let the furs drop at the captain's feet and turned to Dana. "Pardon me, Miss. My ability to irritate others seems a habit I cannot easily break." He offered a sad smile before turning and walking away. He left the pelts lying in the dust.

She barely knew what to make of this strange man. His allegations cast doubts on her father's actions and beliefs, on his life's work. He had essentially accused Cap of fighting for the wrong cause.

"That man is a fool. Nothing but a troublemaker," Cap muttered. To Skinner he said, "I don't understand why you associate with him."

"We fought together against Santa Anna, sir. Mulder was just a boy at the time, barely seventeen, but one of the bravest soldiers I have ever met."

"Foolhardiness often masquerades as bravery, Lieutenant. I hope you don't agree with his current politics. Dana, we must be going. Your mother will be wondering what's keeping us." He took hold of her elbow. "We shall see you at dinner on Saturday, Lieutenant."

"I look forward to it, sir. Miss Scully, it was a pleasure to meet you."

"Thank you, Lieutenant. I feel the same," she said, although she did not. Her stomach was in a knot. Mr. Mulder's row with Cap had been most unpleasant. "Let's hurry, Father. I don't want to keep Mother waiting another minute."

 

Continued in Chapter 4

 

THE MOUNTAIN MAN
HOME

e-mail: nejake@tds.net