Mulder entered the office of The Flatwillow Picayune, ducking from habit as he passed beneath the low lintel. He was greeted by the oily smell of printer's ink and three friendly smiles.
"The prodigal son returns! Welcome back to civilization, Mulder." Frohike sat in his usual place, perched atop a tall stool at a cluttered workbench to the right of the door. Over his head, placards hung like drying laundry from lines tied to the rafters. His desk was lit by the shop's front window and a flickering Bunsen burner. An unidentified substance glowed molten-red above the flame. It gave off the stench of rotten eggs. He alternately peered at the object through a spectroscope and glanced out the window at the thoroughfare. "Who is the fetching young maid on Captain Scully's arm?"
"She spoken for?"
"I didn't ask."
At the center of the room, Byers pulled a large sheet of paper from the newspaper's iron printing press and held it up for inspection. Sleeve-stockings protected his impeccable white shirt from cuff to elbow, but his hands were stained black. "We have a typographical error," he announced.
"Can't be." Langly sat hunched over a tray of lead type, arranging letters into backward sentences. "I checked it at least a dozen times."
"And yet, here it is. You misspelled 'trial.'" Byers turned the page around for all to see. Across the top in big, bold type was the headline: ABRAHAM LINCOLN ASSASSINATION TRAIL ENDS!
Mulder slipped the saddlebag from his shoulder and set it on Frohike's workbench with a thud. "What was the final verdict?"
"Four of the alleged conspirators were hung, including Mary Surratt, the boardinghouse owner," Langly said.
"Alleged? You don't think they were guilty?"
Frohike glanced nervously out the window as if someone on the street might overhear his next words. "According to our sources, they were scapegoats in an ongoing government conspiracy."
"A conspiracy that extends to the highest levels of power." Byers crumpled the press sheet and tossed it into an overflowing barrel.
"You heard about Lewis Powell, didn't you?" Langly asked.
Mulder nodded. "He tried to commit suicide by banging his head against the wall of his prison cell."
"Have you asked yourself *why* he wanted to die?" Frohike asked.
"Because he was on trial for the assassination of the President?"
"No, because of his bowels."
"His...? I don't think I want to hear this."
"He had a logjam in the river, so to speak."
"For the entire duration of the trial," Langly added. “Not so much as a rabbit pellet from April 29th to the 2nd of June.”
"Talk about withholding evidence." Mulder winced. "How is Lewis Powell's constipation proof of a government conspiracy?"
"Isn't it obvious? No one can go without going for an entire month. Not without a little 'help.' We think they put something in his food."
"And people call me crazy."
The unwelcome image of Powell's impacted colon reminded Mulder of the egg-shaped stone in his saddlebag. He upended the bag onto Frohike's workbench and out spilled an assortment of items: pipe bowls, brass buttons, stickpins, hatpins, and other small trade goods he always carried with him in case he had to buy his way out of trouble. The rock egg rolled out along with everything else.
Frohike pulled it from the pile. "What have we here?"
"I was hoping you could tell me."
Byers and Langly crossed the room to get a closer look. Frohike hefted the egg, then turned it so he could study the tiny face that peeked out of the narrow end.
"If I'm not mistaken, this is a fossilized Hydrosaurus hatchling," he said after a minute. "One of Richard Owens' 'terrible lizards.'"
Disappointment surged through Mulder. "A dinosaur." He had seen fossilized remains of Iguanodon in the British Museum back in '53. But those bones and teeth had been huge. Nothing like the delicate creature in the egg. "You're certain?"
"I can show you a picture." Frohike set the artifact on the workbench and hopped off his stool. He went to an overflowing bookcase at the rear of the shop. After a brief search, he pulled a large volume from a lower shelf. "Joseph Leidy's monograph 'Cretaceous Reptiles of the United States,' published earlier this year." He waved the book at Mulder. Returning to the light of the window, he thumbed through the pages until he found the illustration he was looking for. "Here." He spun the book to face Mulder.
A finely detailed lithograph depicted a dragon-like creature with leathery skin, a duck's bill, and clawed toes. The strange animal sat upright on its haunches beside a riverbank, its forelegs miniscule compared to its massive lower limbs. Its tail was thick and muscular, and more than half its length.
"That's the mama..." -- Frohike tapped the picture with a stubby index finger, then hooked a thumb at Mulder's egg -- "and that's her baby."
Mulder had to admit, there was a strong family resemblance.
"So...there's no chance this thing came from...."
Mulder's three friends broke into guffaws. When they realized he was serious, their smiles quickly faded.
Frohike cleared his throat. "Not according to Joseph Leidy. Sorry."
Mulder stuffed the artifact and everything else back into his saddlebag, and turned to go.
"You're leaving already?" Byers asked. "Frohike was just about to dish up some pork and beans."
"Then we were going to break open our latest shipment of stereoscopic images," Langly added.
"Naked French women," said Frohike. "Wanna see?"
"Next time, boys. I've got somewhere I need to be right now." Mulder was going to the Ookáán River to find Cuts To Pieces and the mysterious white woman, danger be damned.
"Chasing after manitous again?" Frohike winked.
"You know me." Mulder hoisted the saddlebag to his shoulder.
"Anything we can do to help?" Byers asked.
Mulder paused at the door. Maybe they could help.
"You speak French?" he asked.
"Oui, naturellement," said Byers.
"Me, too." Langly's head bobbed. "I mean, moi aussi. Un peu."
Mulder looked at Frohike.
"Nada. Does that mean I can't come?"
"Wouldn't dream of leaving you behind, Fro. Put on your best buckskins, boys -- we're going for a little ride."
"Where to?" Byers asked, stripping off his sleeve-stockings.
Mulder thought it best to spare them the details of the mission. After all, he knew very little about the Cree or this fellow Cuts To Pieces, other than his approximate location and the rumor that he was holding a young white woman captive. With so little to go on, why worry his friends unnecessarily?
"Upper Ookáán River," he said, which was true.
"What's up there?"
"Your long lost brother."
Pierre Vaillancourt's dead body, at any rate.
"I have a brother?" Byers looked confused, but grabbed a holstered six-shooter from a cubby beside the door and strapped it on.
Frohike and Langly collected their guns, too, and all three put on hats.
"Shameful the way some families don't keep in touch." Mulder stepped out into the street.
It took a few minutes for Frohike, Langly, and Byers to load up a travel pack and fetch their horses from the livery. They seemed in high spirits and chattered nonstop during the half-day ride from the fort to the lower branch of the Ookáán River, where Few Tails' relatives were camped for the summer. Lost in thought about his sister, Mulder let them yammer. He was hoping for a successful rescue and heartfelt reunion, and imagined his mother and father's joy when he telegraphed to say Samantha was alive and finally safe.
They arrived at the Blackfoot camp shortly after sunset, saddle sore and hungry. Few Tails' cousin, Brave Wolf, invited them to stay in his lodge overnight.
Brave Wolf was shorter and stockier than his cousin. A long scar puckered his right cheek, making him look more fearsome than he actually was. In truth, he was a friendly and generous man with a ready smile.
He fed his guests roasted antelope and timpsula cakes, and shared his pipe. The next morning, he offered them his best canoe, saying it would be faster to travel by water than by land. The river basin was overgrown with choke cherry, box elder, and buckbrush, he warned, making it slow-going on horseback.
Mulder accepted the loan of the boat, and stowed his rifle, saddlebags, and the guys’ travel pack in the bottom.
They paddled upriver against a slow current, portaging only occasionally where the river grew shallow and the canoe scraped bottom. Mulder set their direction from the stern. Byers kept pace and watched for underwater obstacles from the bow. Langly and Frohike sat between them, passing their stereoscope back and forth.
"I can't believe you brought that thing," Mulder said, scanning the shore for signs of Cuts To Pieces' camp.
"You have no idea what you're missing." Frohike slid a stereographic card into the scope. "This is better than a weekend at the Flatwillow Brothel."
"Like you'd know."
"Take a look." He offered the scope to Mulder.
"No thanks. Think you two might pick up a paddle at some point?"
"What's the hurry? You need to enjoy yourself more, Mulder. Live a little! Oh, this one's a redhead. She looks a lot like Captain Scully's daught--"
"Give me that." Mulder abandoned his paddle and grabbed the scope.
The woman in the watercolor-tinted stereograph was undeniably beautiful. Glossy red hair as brilliant as any sunset draped her pale, bare shoulders. Her breasts were exposed, and her nipples had been painted rosy pink to match her full lips and rouged cheeks. Although topless, she wore a dark green skirt, much like the one Dana Scully had been wearing yesterday. The hem was lifted to expose lace petticoats, slender ankles, and tiny bare feet.
Blood rushed to Mulder's groin and he suppressed a moan. He had no doubt Captain Scully would declare his pretty daughter off limits, along with his fort. And although Mulder was willing to confront the captain on issues of politics, romancing his daughter was a challenge he could do without.
He thrust the stereoscope back into Frohike's outstretched hand, picked up his paddle, and plunged its blade into the river. Drawing hard against the current, he tried to concentrate on the rhythm of his strokes instead of the ache in his cock.
Around noon the next day, Mulder caught a whiff of wood fire. Half a mile upstream, more than a dozen curling lines of smoke drifted above the treetops, indicating a camp of substantial size around the next bend. Given their travel time, it had to be Cuts To Pieces' camp.
Mulder angled his blade and aimed them toward shore.
"Are we here already?" Langly peered through dusty spectacles at the wooded riverbank.
They climbed out in the shallows and beached the canoe.
"What happens now?" Byers wiped sweat from his brow.
The sun shone directly overhead. Not a breath of wind stirred the leaves of the surrounding cottonwoods. In the upper branches, cicadas whined in the fierce, midday heat.
"We're going to pay a visit to the village up ahead." Mulder took a swig from their canteen and passed it to Byers. "Since my French is a little rusty and you and Langly are fluent, you'll do most of the talking."
"What are we supposed to say?" Byers asked.
"Tell the guy in charge that you're Jacques and Jean Vaillancourt, Pierre's brothers."
"Which of us is which?"
"Does it matter?"
"I think we should get our names straight." Finished with the canteen, Byers handed it to Langly.
"Fine, you're Jacques. Langly can be Jean."
Byers seemed satisfied. "What about you and Frohike?"
"What about us?"
"Your names. Who are you going to be?"
"Mulder and Frohike."
"You're not incognito, too?"
"I want a nickname," Frohike said. "Something that reflects my sharp-shooting skills." He deftly drew his pistol from its holster and twirled it once, twice, three times around his index finger. "Maybe 'Quick Draw Mel--'"
The gun flew unexpectedly from his hand and landed with a thud behind him in the weeds.
"How about 'Fumble Fingers Frohike'," Mulder said. "Put that thing away before you shoot yourself in the ass."
Red-faced, Frohike stooped to retrieve the gun. Sand dribbled from its barrel as he slid it back into his holster.
"What do we do after we introduce ourselves?" Byers asked.
Mulder indicated the trade goods with a sweep of his hand. "Give them a few gifts to show our friendly intentions."
"And after we've gained their trust?"
"Find out what you can about the woman your brother Pierre brought to their camp last spring...like her name, where she came from..." It was time to come clean about the real reason they were here. "And how we might rescue her without getting ourselves killed."
"Killed? You're not friendly with these Indians?"
"Nnn-not exactly. They're, uh, Cree."
"Enemies of your buddies, the Blackfoot. I get it. Oil and water. You might have mentioned this sooner, Mulder."
"Would it have made a difference? There's a woman in that camp who needs our help."
"A damsel in distress -- that's all I need to know." Frohike fitted his hat more firmly to his head, readying himself for action.
"Me, too," Langly agreed, balling his fists.
"And me," Byers said, "but it'll be safer if Langly and I go alone."
"Not a chance. I'm going with you," Mulder said.
"If the Cree recognize you, we're all dead. Langly and I can handle this. Right Jean?"
"Ce que tu dis, mon frère."
"What about me?" Frohike asked.
"No point risking it." Byers' mind was clearly made up. "You stay with Mulder. We should be back in about an hour. Two at most."
"I'm not staying behind," Mulder insisted.
"Yes, you are. Langly and I can do this. We're just going to have a little look around. Ask a few friendly questions. Assess the situation."
"We'll be careful. Trust us. Everything will be fine."
"I really don't think--"
"You want to get us killed, Mulder? This is the safest course of action -- for all of us."
As much as Mulder hated to admit it, Byers was right. His alliance with the Blackfoot was well known throughout the region. It would take only one Cree brave to recognize him and they would all be tortured and killed. Byers and Langly were his best hope of getting Samantha out of the camp alive.
"All right, you two go, but if you run into trouble, anything at all, get the hell out as quickly as you can."
"Don't worry." Langly grinned as he and Byers climbed back into the canoe and pushed away from shore. "It's us!"
"That's not reassuring." Mulder wished he hadn't invited them to come. If anything went wrong now and they ended up getting hurt, he would have only himself to blame.
"They'll be fine." Frohike settled onto the grassy bank, hands pillowing his head, Stetson shading his eyes. "What's the worst that could happen?"
* * *
Two hours stretched into four and then four to six. The sun's dying rays glowed blood-red above the mountains. Bats sliced the twilight, hunting insects in the gloom. A coyote's howl momentarily silenced the harrumph of bullfrogs in the rushes by the shore.
Mulder paced the bank, more than a little worried. "They're in trouble."
Frohike sat in the weeds, swatting mosquitoes with his Stetson. "Settle down. They probably just stayed for supper." His stomach gurgled loudly at the mention of food. "I could use a little dinner myself. Got any jerky?"
Mulder pulled a wad from his pocket and tossed it to Frohike. "I should have gone with them."
"Are you loco? You sleep with the enemy, remember? Speaking of which..." A lascivious grin spread across Frohike's face. "Have you called upon Spotted Rabbit or Little Bird lately?"
Mulder craned to see around the bend upriver. "Where the hell are they?" he grumbled, dodging the subject of Kicking Horse's lovely young daughters.
"Mulder! Frohike!" Byers' panicky shouts came from upstream.
The canoe rounded the turn. Byers and Langly were paddling for all they were worth. When they drew nearer, Mulder saw they were wearing nothing but their under drawers.
Frohike staggered to his feet. "Where are your clothes?"
"No time to explain. Get in!" Byers gasped for breath.
Mulder and Frohike splashed into the river. The boat rocked as they climbed in and seated themselves between Langly in the bow and Byers in the stern. The travel pack and Mulder's trade goods and rifle were gone.
"What happened?" Mulder took up a paddle and put his back into escaping whoever was chasing them.
"You neglected to mention a few pertinent details," said Byers, sounding both annoyed and frightened. "Like the fact that Cuts To Pieces killed Pierre."
"I didn't know." It was the truth. Few Tails had said the Frenchman was dead; he never explained how he had died.
"You sent them to meet a guy named 'Cuts To Pieces'?" Frohike gaped at Mulder. "What were you thinking?"
"I was thinking about my sister. Did you find her?"
"So that's what this was all about," Byers said. "You might've told us."
"I'll apologize later. Was Samantha there?"
"No. Paddle faster."
"What do you mean no?"
"I mean she wasn't there. She was never there. The woman Vaillancourt brought with him was Sarah Jewett."
"Who's Sarah Jewett?"
"Does it matter?"
"Yes, it matters." Mulder reversed his stroke, slowing their forward momentum. "We have to go back."
"Not a chance." Byers drew harder on his own paddle. The canoe inched forward.
"We can't leave her with Cuts To Pieces."
"Oh, yes, we can. She doesn't want to be rescued."
"Of course she wants to be rescued."
"I'm telling you, she's happy where she is."
"How can she possibly be--?"
"She's there of her own free will, Mulder. Her former husband was a despicable, money-grubbing prospector, who sold her to Vaillancourt."
"For a lousy gold claim," Langly added. "After beating her with a shovel."
"Vaillancourt beat her, too, then offered her to the Indians in exchange for a fresh horse," Byers said. "We talked to her. The Indians treat her better than she's ever been treated in her life. Last month, she married a brave named White Hawk. We met him. He seemed like a nice guy. They all seemed pretty nice, until..."
"Until what?" Mulder asked.
"Until Langly told Cuts to Pieces to 'boire de ma branche d'arbre.'"
"Which means...?" Frohike asked.
"Roughly, 'drink from my tree branch.'" Byers shook his head as if he still couldn't believe it had happened. "Needless to say, Cuts To Pieces took it as an insult."
"Pardon my French," Langly said. "I thought I was asking for water. I was thirsty!"
War whoops sounded behind them. An arrow hissed past Mulder's ear. A second struck the gunwale near his knee and stuck there. Mulder drew his pistol and turned in his seat.
Thirty yards upstream, an enormous war canoe carrying at least a dozen Cree braves bore down on them. Half of the party wielded paddles. The others were armed with bows and arrows, and one rifle -- Mulder's. The paddlers matched the powerful strokes of their forward man, who sat in the bow wearing Langly's top hat. The archers fired a hailstorm of arrows.
Mulder hunkered low and fired his gun. The round pierced the water several inches in front of the war canoe's bow.
The gap between the two boats narrowed. It would be only a matter of minutes before the Indians overtook them.
"Hey, Quick Draw, you going to help out here?" Mulder asked, taking more careful aim.
Frohike pushed back his hat and adjusted his glasses.
"Any time," Mulder urged. He fired another round. The bullet tore the feathers from one brave's hair.
Unhurt, the Indians jeered and redoubled their efforts. More arrows sailed past Mulder. One slashed the sleeve of his deerskin tunic, grazing his shoulder. Another speared Frohike's Stetson and carried it into the river.
"Damn it, that was my best hat." Frohike drew his gun and fired three quick shots. The first splintered a blade clean off one of the Indian’s paddles, leaving the stunned man holding nothing but the broken shaft. The second blasted Langly's top hat off the bow man’s head. The third punctured a fist-sized hole into the canoe's birchbark hull. Water poured in on the Indians.
Mulder whistled in appreciation. "Pretty fancy shooting, Melvin."
"I've been practicing." Frohike blew across the smoking barrel.
The war canoe floundered and began to sink. Now it was the guys' turn to jeer.
"Take that, 'Canoe In Pieces'!" Byers shouted.
Frohike waved his pistol. "Boire this branch, amigos."
"And kiss my pale ass!" Langly stood up, presented his backside to the Cree, and yanked down his under drawers.
"Hey, watch where you point that thing," Mulder said from directly behind him.
"Oh, sorry." Langly pulled up his long johns and sat back down.
Mulder holstered his gun and resumed paddling, eager to put as much distance as possible between them and the angry Indians.
* * *
By noon the next day, every muscle in Mulder's back and arms ached from exertion. The slash on his shoulder was oozing blood. Hunger clawed at his stomach. But his physical discomfort was little compared to the ache in his heart. He had not found Samantha. Again.
Years of searching and nothing to show for it. Not a single shred of evidence to explain what happened to her. His sister's disappearance was as much a mystery now as the night she went missing.
Yet despite constant dead ends and disappointment, Mulder refused to give up. The truth was out there. Eventually, he would uncover the clue that would lead him to Samantha. He wanted to believe, *needed* to believe, that one day they would be reunited.
"Think they've given up?" Byers peered backward, his face etched with exhaustion.
"I hope so." Blisters and peeling skin mottled Langly's sunburned face, back, and arms. Even the tops of his bare feet looked painfully red and swollen.
The sun's heat had been relentless throughout the long morning. A veil of high, wispy clouds and a searing southerly breeze brought scant relief.
Frohike took pity and offered Langly his vest in exchange for the story about how they had lost their clothes.
"It all started with the Hand Game." Langly shrugged into the fringed vest, taking care not to chafe his burned back.
"Hand game? I hope this doesn't have anything to do with your 'branche d'arbre.'"
"It's a lot like Button, Button, Who's Got the Button," Byers explained, "only you use little bone sticks instead of buttons. You hide a stick in your palm, put your hands behind your back to swap the stick back and forth a few times, then hold out your fists. The object of the game is to trick your opponent into picking the hand that's not holding a stick."
"A player wins one of twelve counters for each correct guess," Mulder added, all too familiar with the gambling game, a favorite among the Blackfoot. "You lose a counter if you guess wrong."
"We ran out of counters pretty quickly," Byers said, "but the Indians insisted we keep playing. After Langly's insult, they wanted to wring us dry."
"We ended up losing our shirts. Literally."
"And our boots, hats, guns. Everything but our lives."
"So how come you're not dead?" Frohike asked.
"The stereoscope," they said in unison.
"If not for those naked French women, our scalps would be hanging on Cuts To Pieces' lodge pole right now." Langly raked shaky fingers through his hair. "We snuck away while they ogled the redhead."
"I can see how she might distract a guy." Mulder's cock twitched at the memory.
"A shame you had to leave her behind." Frohike sighed.
The next few hours passed slowly as they continued downriver. They spoke little, too tired to do more than lift their paddles. When they finally arrived at Brave Wolf's village, they dragged the boat ashore and climbed stiffly up the grassy slope to the tepees.
They found Brave Wolf sitting cross-legged outside his tepee, his scarred face smeared with white clay and his waist-length hair cropped unexpectedly short in a show of mourning.
"Red Crow?" Mulder asked in Blackfoot, worried the old Indian had succumbed to his disease.
Brave Wolf nodded. "He travels to Sand Hills."
Sand Hills was a dreary, alkali country, purportedly located on the plains south of the Saskatchewan River. The Blackfoot believed their ghosts went there after death. Quicksand surrounded the area, they claimed, to keep out the living.
"I'm sorry." Feeling as if his legs might give out, Mulder sank to a squat beside Brave Wolf. "Your grandfather was a great man. I wish I'd had the opportunity to say goodbye."
"Few Tails is bringing him to Crooked Valley tomorrow for burial. You can say your last words there."
To be asked to attend the funeral ceremony was a great honor. Mulder appreciated the invitation and the opportunity to pay his final respects.
Brave Wolf eyed Frohike, Byers, and Langly. "Your friends will come, too?"
Mulder translated the invitation.
"We aren't really dressed for a funeral." Byers plucked at his sagging, mud-stained under drawers.
"I could ask Brave Wolf to loan you a couple of loincloths," Mulder offered, imagining how ridiculous they would look, sunburned and spotted with insect bites above the waist, fish-belly white below. They were going to draw plenty of stares when they rode half-naked back into the fort at Flatwillow.
Byers shook his head. "Thanks, but we have to get back. The Picayune is due out tomorrow."
"And I still have type to set," Langly reminded him.
Brave Wolf rose to his feet and ushered them into his tepee. Several partridge roasted on a spit over the fire. The delicious aroma made Mulder's mouth water.
"Did you find what you were looking for?" Brave Wolf asked, once they were all seated comfortably around the hearth.
A pretty Indian woman, who Mulder assumed was one of Brave Wolf's wives, served mountainsnails, mulberries, and milkweed shoots on a large, wooden platter.
"Yes and no," Mulder replied in Blackfoot as he helped himself to the food. "We located Cuts To Pieces' camp, but not the white woman I was hoping to find."
"If you found Cuts To Pieces, you are lucky you still have your hair."
"He was no match for our secret weapon."
Brave Wolf's eyebrows lifted.
Mulder tilted his head at Frohike. "Quick Draw Melvin shot a hole in Cuts To Pieces’ war canoe."
Concern darkened Brave Wolf's eyes. "He will seek revenge."
"The guys will be back in Flatwillow by midday tomorrow. The Cree won't go near the fort."
"The Cree are fearless. For generations, they have raided our camps, taken our women, and killed our warriors. They gave me this when I was a boy of eight summers." Brave Wolf pointed to the scar on his cheek. "If you have made an enemy of Cuts To Pieces, I fear you are in great danger."
Continued in Chapter 5
THE MOUNTAIN MAN