The Mountain Man by aka "Jake"

Chapter 5

Few Tails prepared Red Crow for burial in the traditional manner. He dressed the body in ceremonial clothes and dutifully painted the old man’s disease-ravaged face. He then wrapped him in a fine buffalo robe and placed him on a travois for the journey to Crooked Valley.

At the burial ground, Mulder helped Few Tails and Brave Wolf construct a tall, four-posted scaffold, away from trees and rock outcroppings, out of reach of predators. Together they lifted Red Crow onto the platform. They placed items he would need in the afterlife -- his pipe, weapons, blankets, and medicine bag -- beside him.

As the sun set, Few Tails broke into mournful song. Nitsíkhhihkínii'taki. I am sad. Nitáíksimsstatawa nínna. I am thinking of my father. Brave Wolf rhythmically pounded a hand-held drum with a fringed mallet. Deep, hollow beats echoed off the hillsides like the footfalls of Thunder Beings. Metal bangles on the mallet jingled lightly with every stroke. It was the beginning of what Mulder knew would be a prolonged tribute.

He had witnessed Blackfoot displays of grief before. The customs of mourning could last weeks, sometimes months. To demonstrate their indifference to pain and their high regard for the deceased, they would deny and even torture themselves. At daybreak, Few Tails would withdraw to the summit of a nearby hill. He would weep and gash himself with his knife or arrow points. He might go so far as to sever a finger at the first joint to express the depth of his sorrow. Eventually, his cousin would intervene and bring him back to their camp.

Unwilling to watch his friend mutilate himself, yet knowing he was powerless to stop it, Mulder packed his saddlebags and prepared to say goodbye.

Few Tails met him beside the horses. "You are leaving tonight?"

"I have a line of traps on Nine Pipe Ridge that needs tending."

Few Tails nodded, letting Mulder's lie go unchallenged. "I have a favor to ask," he said.

"Name it."

Few Tails presented Mulder with a small totem pouch. "This belonged to my grandfather."

"What's in it?"

"Bad luck."

"And you’re giving it to me?"

"I want you to deliver it to its rightful owner."

Mulder reluctantly took the pouch and loosened the drawstring. Inside he found a silver medallion, a Jefferson Peace Medal. He had seen them before.

Three inches in diameter, the medallion bore Thomas Jefferson's likeness on the front. On the reverse was an illustration of two hands grasped in a handshake below a hatchet crossed with a long-stemmed pipe, and the words "peace and friendship."

Emissaries of the U.S. government had been issuing diplomatic tokens like these to the Indians for decades. Such medals were supposed to signify an understanding of goodwill and the promise of military support against mutual enemies. In reality, the government used them to ensure free and profitable commerce...for whites.

"Grandfather was a papoose when a man named Captain Lewis came to our land," Few Tails explained. "The captain and his party intercepted eight boys from the Skunk Band who were herding horses from Birch Creek to their camp. The white men stayed with the boys and gambled with them. In the morning, when the boys tried to take what they had won the previous day, the white men killed one boy with their knives. They chased a second boy and shot him dead with a pistol. Captain Lewis placed that," -- Few Tails indicated the medallion with a jab of his finger -- "around the boy's neck so that his family would know who was responsible. The boy was Calf Looking, Grandfather's older brother."

Mulder's innards rolled in disgust. He stared at the medal, knowing there was nothing he could say that would make up for the misdeeds of his race.

"The boys Captain Lewis killed were horse herders, not warriors. They were thirteen summers old." Anger burned in Few Tails' eyes. "Many white captains have given silver pieces like this one to my people. Not in friendship or in peace as they claim. Their purpose was to make us think they were great warriors. They wanted us to be afraid of them so we would surrender without fighting. They wished to crush all the nations of this land. They wish it still."

Mulder nodded. What Few Tails said was true. When Lewis and Clark presented their medals to the Indians, they had recited a patronizing speech, proclaiming U.S. sovereignty over Indian territory. They intimated heinous repercussions for any who refused to submit: "Do these things which your great father advises and be happy lest by one false step you should bring down upon your nation the displeasure of your great father who could consume you as the fire consumes the grass of the plains."

Mulder slid the medallion into its pouch. "Who do you want me to give it to?"

"The captain at the fort. Tell him Red Crow's people do not surrender so easily."

"My words carry little weight with Captain Scully." Mulder tucked the pouch into his saddlebag and mounted his horse. "But I'll do as you ask."

"When a warrior says he will do a thing, then it is done. I know you will find a way." Few Tails stepped back from Mulder's horse. "Return to my tepee soon. Ikimópii." Sit in the place of honor.

"Count on it, my friend. Take care."

Mulder spurred his horse and headed south through the valley. He followed a quick-flowing brook called Ainihkiwa Aohkíí, Singing Water. The stream gurgled over pebbled shoals, around boulders. Steep, craggy hills rose straight up on either side and the sun's dying rays painted the upper cliffs gold and crimson. A chilly evening breeze snaked through the canyon, carrying the flinty odor of exposed bedrock. Mulder breathed deeply, filled his lungs, and tried to clear his head. Red Crow's death weighed heavily on his mind.

White men had brought smallpox to the Americas. The Mandan, Assiniboine, and Blackfoot had been hit especially hard, dying in horrifying numbers. Mulder had seen infected villages, the sick driven mad, their flesh riddled with maggots even before death could silence their moans. He had heard the cries of sick children and anguished families, and gagged on the stench of rotting corpses. Coming upon a village of cold, silent tepees, he had dropped to his knees and wept unashamedly, his lonely outrage the only human sound for miles.

An unthinkable story had circulated through the army's ranks years ago. A captain named Ecuyer had been stationed at Fort Pitt in 1763, his garrison under siege by Indian forces. According to some, Ecuyer distributed blankets and handkerchiefs contaminated by smallpox to Chief Pontiac in a deliberate attempt to spread the disease among the enemy. It seemed unimaginably cruel, even in wartime, but a letter sent by Ecuyer to Colonel Bouquet later corroborated this unbelievable report.

Few Tails kept several army-issue blankets in his tepee. They came from Fort Culbertson's store; Mulder had purchased and delivered them to Good Thunder himself. One had cushioned Red Crow's head as he lay dying. Had the blankets been purposely tainted with smallpox? If so, that made Mulder an unwitting accomplice in Captain Scully's war against the Indians.

Surely, the captain would not take his notions of Manifest Destiny so far. Such an idea was too monstrous to contemplate.

An owl hooted from atop a ghostly snag. Mulder dug the Jefferson medallion from his saddlebag. Holding it in his palm, he hefted its weight and considered the arrogance of the men who crafted it. His own pale skin marked him as kin to these men, he knew, as much a foreigner in this wilderness as the soldiers at Fort Culbertson.

The sun sank behind the mountain peaks and shadows as black as bruises crawled into the canyon. Fireflies darted above the brook's rippled surface, tiny lanterns in the gathering gloom. A quarter moon provided scant illumination, so Mulder loosened his grip on the reins and allowed the horse to choose their path.

Weariness settled into his bones. He longed to return to his mountain cabin, sleep for a week, pretend the Blackfoot were not in danger from Captain Scully's troops and the inevitable encroachment of white settlers. But sleep would have to wait. He had a pick-up to make before dawn. A delivery of gunpowder and percussion caps waited for him at Buffalo Jump, a pre-arranged drop-off point.

A tattered cloud slid in front of the moon. He had a lot of ground to cover before daybreak. With a press of his heels, he urged his horse to a trot.

*     *     *

The week had passed quickly as Dana settled into her father's house and her mother's routine. Each day she helped Maggie and the housemaid, a scrawny young woman named Millie, with the cooking and household chores. Whenever she tried to excuse herself to tour the fort's infirmary, Maggie reminded her there was much to do before Saturday when their "special" guest would be joining them for dinner.

"We want to give Lieutenant Skinner a good impression, dear," Maggie said.

"Of course."

"Your father thinks very highly of him, you know."

"I know."

"You can visit the infirmary next week. Or next month, for that matter."

"I’ll go later today."

"Yes, of course. But we have linens to wash. And silver to polish. And a menu to sort out... Did you know Lieutenant Skinner fought the Mexicans under General Scott?"

"I believe it's been mentioned."

"He's been decorated."

"Of course."

"He will make a fine husband."

"It would seem so."

"Your father thinks very highly of him."

"So you've said." She wanted to add "at least a dozen times," but refrained and focused on her chores instead.

By the time Saturday arrived, Dana had not visited the infirmary, but she had learned that Walter Skinner grew up in Mission, Delaware; he liked to carve wooden boxes, whistles, and toy soldiers in his spare time; and his favorite dish was mutton with bread sauce. She also learned he was a widower with two sons -- Josiah and George -- who were attending boarding school back east. Liddiah, his wife of twelve years, died of diphtheria during the winter of '62, while Skinner was fighting in Mill Springs, Kentucky, under General Thomas. Nearly seven-hundred men died in that battle; two-hundred-thirty had been Union soldiers.

Maggie bustled about her kitchen, alternately fussing over a roasting saddle of mutton and stirring a pot of vegetable-marrow soup. A bibbed apron protected her freshly pressed evening dress, a plaid never-ending with crocheted collar and three wide flounces trimmed in navy.

In contrast to her mother's elaborate gown, Dana wore an austere, gray Pagoda dress, decorated only with two meager rows of black velvet piping at the hem. Her mother had objected to her choice, saying it was too plain for the occasion, but no amount of urging would convince Dana to change into her fancy green silk, not after the silly way she had used it to challenge her father the day of her arrival. She resolved to forgo any future shows of childish defiance. Cap loved her and was merely trying to put her on a path to a happy, comfortable life. She would treat him honestly from here on out.

Leaning against the kitchen doorframe, Dana thumbed through her mother's dog-eared copy of "The Book of Household Management" by Isabella Beeton. A passage about hosting a dinner party caught her eye and she read it aloud to Maggie and Millie: "'The half-hour before dinner has always been considered as the great ordeal through which the mistress, in giving a dinner-party, will either pass with flying colors or lose many of her laurels. The anxiety to receive her guests, her hope that all will be present in due time, her trust in the skill of her cook, and the attention of the other domestics, all tend to make these few minutes a trying time. The mistress, however, must display no kind of agitation, but show her tact in suggesting light and cheerful subjects of conversation.'"

"Please stop reading, Dana, and help Millie with the silver."

Millie was polishing soup spoons in the corner. Pale as milk and thin as a knitting needle, Millie chewed her lower lip as she worked, trying her best to be of service while simultaneously staying out of her busy mistress's way. "This is the last one, ma'am."

Since Millie didn't need her help, Dana continued to read. Another passage caught her attention: She who makes her husband and her children happy, who reclaims the one from vice and trains up the other to virtue, is a much greater character than ladies described in romances, whose whole occupation is to murder mankind with shafts from their quiver, or their eyes.

"Ridiculous," she muttered, flipping to another page.

"You would do well to heed Mrs. Beeton's advice, Dana. Certain things are expected of us as women. The sooner you accept that fact, the happier you'll be."

Maggie's cheeks were pink from the heat of the stove. Several long strands of hair had escaped her snood, giving her a harried appearance.

Dana wondered if one day she would be hosting dinner parties like this as Mrs. Walter Skinner, simultaneously worrying over the soup broth and her children's futures.

"Are you happy, Mother?"

The seriousness of Dana's tone caused Maggie to stop her stirring. She stepped away from the stove and wiped her hands on her apron. "Of course, Dana. I respect your father. I love you children. What more could a woman want? Millie, you're going to rub the silver clean off that spoon."

"Sorry, ma'am." Millie set down her polishing rag.

"Have you put out the castor set?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Then see to the tea service, please."

"Yes, ma'am." Millie hurried from the room.

"Dana, are you tending the bread sauce?"

"Mm-hm." Dana scanned Beeton's table of contents: Arrangement and Economy of the Kitchen; General Observations on Quadrupeds, the Common Hog, Puddings and Pastry; Rearing, Management, and Diseases of Infancy and Childhood. This last looked promising, as did the penultimate chapter, "The Doctor."

She turned to it and silently read Beeton's descriptions of autumnal complaints, apoplexy, broken bones, ringworm, and heart palpitations. For burns and scalds Beeton recommended a good coating of common flour on the affected parts. She claimed stammering could be remedied by reading aloud for two hours a day with the teeth clamped together. And, apparently, young, nervous, unmarried women were more prone to fits of hysteria than married women or men.

"Rubbish."

"Dana, the bread sauce."

"Oh!" Dana tossed Beeton onto the sideboard and hurried to the boiling pot. "Oh, dear."

Maggie was at her side instantly. "It's burned."

"I'm sorry."

A clomp of boots in the outer room signaled the arrival of the men.

"Well, it's too late to start again." Maggie removed her apron and smoothed her flyaway hair. "Try to salvage what you can. Watch you don't get any charred bits into the serving dish." To soften her demand, she kissed Dana lightly on the cheek. "It'll be all right, sweetheart."

By the time Dana brought the sauce to the table, the gentlemen had hung their hats and gathered in the dining room. The three officers looked dashing in their nine-button frockcoats and sashes. Charlie looked equally handsome in his chestnut tailcoat and Chinese silk vest.

Cap indicated the chairs around the table and asked, "How would you like us arranged, dear?"

"You're at the head, of course." Maggie plucked a faded blossom from the bouquet of flowers at the table's center and deposited it in Millie's outstretched hand. "I'm at the foot. Dana, you sit next to your father with Lieutenant Skinner on your left. Charlie and Bill will have to make do sitting beside one another as we're short on women."

Millie poured wine while everyone took their places. Lieutenant Skinner helped Dana with her chair before seating himself. Bill Jr. assisted his mother. At Maggie's request, Skinner led grace.

Conversation was mundane during the soup course. By the time Millie served the mutton and forcemeat, they had exhausted the subjects of weather and everyone's general health. Over Maggie's objection, Cap reported on the troops' practice maneuvers and expressed disappointment in their lack of prior military training. Bill Jr. heartily agreed and went on to describe a marching drill that went awry just that morning when a clumsy trooper stumbled on a stone, accidentally discharged his rifle, which caused the other men to scatter like chickens from a butcher.

Skinner seemed to scarcely be listening, his attention focused almost solely on Dana. He blatantly watched her sip her wine, spoon her soup, and cut into her meat. No doubt he was sizing up her comportment, manners, and skill as a conversationalist, judging whether or not she would make an acceptable officer’s wife.

Glancing at him, she missed her mouth with her fork. A chunk of mutton slipped from the tines and plopped wetly on the pristine, linen tablecloth. Bread sauce dripped from her chin. Grabbing her napkin, she lost hold of her fork. It leapt from her hand as if possessed and clattered loudly to the floor. Face blazing, she reached for it, only to drop her napkin atop the toe of Lieutenant Skinner's polished boot.

"Allow me." He bent to retrieve both fork and napkin.

Charlie took the opportunity to catch Dana's eye over the table and mimic the lieutenant's doting gaze. His impression was so precise, Dana could not help but laugh out loud.

"Did I miss a joke?" Skinner straightened and handed her the fallen napkin.

She took it, swabbed her chin, and glared at Charlie, which only seemed to amuse him more. "I was just thinking how comical Bill's soldiers must have looked, running pell-mell, frightened for their lives," she said. "No one was injured, I hope."

"Thankfully, no," Bill said.

Millie appeared at Dana's elbow with a clean fork. She took the soiled one from Skinner, mopped up the fallen mutton from the table with her cleaning cloth, and retreated once more to the kitchen.

"Are there many men in the infirmary right now?" Dana asked, curious to know what she would be facing on Monday. "Any serious injuries or infectious diseases? Measles, TB--"

Cap cleared his throat and gave a disapproving frown.

"This is not the place to be discussing diseases and war wounds," Maggie said, smiling apologetically at Skinner. "Lieutenant, tell us about your day."

"I'm afraid the details of my day are as unfit for polite conversation as mutilation and pestilence, Mrs. Scully," Skinner said grimly.

"Really? What happened?" Charlie asked, always on the lookout for story ideas. Maggie aimed stern eyes his way. He quickly added, "In the most general of terms, naturally."

"The Lieutenant's troops ousted a band of Blackfoot from Grass Creek, seven miles north of the fort," Cap answered for Skinner. "A skirmish ensued."

"Any casualties?"

"Not on our side," Skinner said.

"What about the Indians?" Dana asked. "How did they fare?"

Skinner drained his wine glass. "Seven dead. A dozen wounded."

Remembering what the mountain man had said to her father outside Culbertson's store earlier in the week, Dana asked, "Were there women and children among the casualties?"

Skinner picked at his food and said nothing.

Dana turned to Cap. "Father?"

"The U.S. military does not condone killing innocents, Dana, as you well know. The men of this garrison are here to expand the boundaries of our government and protect the citizenry of this territory. We are not in the habit of attacking women and children of any race."

"But, they sometimes do get hurt," she said, her appetite fading.

"A regrettable consequence of war, I’m afraid."

"Are we at war here in Montana?"

"You've had your nose in your medical books too long, Sis." Bill Jr. dished a second helping of stewed vegetables onto his plate. "Our orders are to establish political authority across this continent. If the Indians refuse to yield, they leave us no choice but to take up arms against them. They raid our stations and kill our men. They kill our women and children, too, by the way."

"We must fight if we are to survive and flourish here," Cap said.

Bill Jr. offered Skinner the wine decanter. "Our job would be a hell of a lot easier if people like Crazy Fox weren't abetting the enemy."

"Crazy who?" Charlie asked.

"Fox. Fox Mulder." Skinner waved off the wine.

"He's been providing guns to the Indians." Bill Jr. refilled his own glass. "We confiscated three Winchesters and an Enfield earlier this week from Kicking Horse's village. We have no doubt they came from Mulder."

Dana carefully excised a bit of gristle from her mutton. "Why would Mr. Mulder help the Indians?"

"Because he's a misguided fool," Cap said. "He lives in the hills like a mad hermit. Wears feathers in his hair; dresses like a heathen. It's hard to imagine he was once a U.S. soldier."

"A fine one, at the time," Skinner said through clenched teeth. It was unclear whether his anger was directed at Mulder or at Cap.

Cap continued as if Skinner had not spoken. "Mulder visits Culbertson a couple of times a year to trade furs for guns, which go straight into the hands of the Indians in exchange for useless trinkets and who knows what else."

"I can guess what else." Bill Jr. winked and elbowed Charlie. "Rumor has it Crazy Fox regularly raids Kicking Horse's chicken coop, if you take my meaning."

Charlie grinned. "Sounds like his name should be Sly Fox!"

"Boys! You are not in the Flatwillow Saloon!" Maggie pinned them both with an indignant stare. "Do not repeat vulgar gossip at my table."

In spite of his mother's ire, Charlie rubbed his hands together, unable to hide his excitement. "Looks like I've found the subject of my next article."

Cap slammed his knife and fork on the table. "You will not romanticize that traitor in one of your lurid tales, Charles. Fox Mulder supplies guns and ammunition to the hostiles. He puts my men at risk!"

Charlie's smile faded and his face reddened.

Dana jumped to her brother's defense. "Back east Charlie's stories are as popular as any by Cooper, Father. As a matter of fact, his latest, 'Passion on the Prairie'--"

"Millie! Bring the dessert!" Maggie shouted over her shoulder, cutting Dana short. She turned to Cap and said sweetly, "Dear, tell us about the fort's history. Dana and Charlie would enjoy hearing it, I'm sure. Wouldn't you, children?"

Dana glanced apologetically at Charlie. "Yes, of course, Mother."

Charlie lifted his chin and straightened his shoulders. "By all means, tell us."

Millie served bowls of berry cream, and while they ate, Cap recounted Fort Culbertson's humble beginnings. He relaxed as he spoke and the mood at the table began to lighten. Dana soon found herself caught up in his tale.

"Convoys of freight wagons hauled food, supplies, mail, and treaty rations from here to outposts in western Canada. They returned with buffalo hides, beaver pelts, wolf skins, ermine, fox, and mink. By 1862, with the era of fur trading nearly at an end, the AFC sold the post to the military," Cap concluded at length. "I was assigned a year later. I sent for your mother the following spring. And, now, here we all are and I couldn't be more pleased."

He looked genuinely happy, his former indignation gone. Dana decided not to spoil his good mood by reminding him that they were not all at the table. Melissa was somewhere in Europe, simultaneously breaking God's commandments and her mother's heart, according to Cap. Dana missed her sister and it hurt that she was so easily forgotten or purposely overlooked.

"Ladies, my sincerest thanks for a truly delicious dinner." Skinner set his fork atop his empty plate. "I haven't eaten this well in a very long time."

"Beats the rations Sergeant Dunham serves in the mess." Bill Jr. patted his belly.

"Thank you very much, gentlemen." Maggie smiled.

Cap leaned back in his chair. "Cigars and cognac, boys?"

Maggie stood and the men quickly rose to their feet. She waved them back to their seats. "I'll bring your cognac."

"Let me help you, Mother." Dana folded her napkin and pushed away from the table.

Maggie apparently had a different plan in mind. "Dana, perhaps you and the lieutenant would like to take in the night air before the men retire with their cigars. There's a beautiful quarter moon out tonight."

"Wonderful idea, dear." Cap's cheeks puffed with approval.

From the honey-laced tone of Maggie's voice and Cap's self-satisfied smile, Dana suspected they had hatched this little plot days ago.

"Plenty of time for cigars when you return, Lieutenant," Cap said. "Assuming you're amenable to a walk beneath the stars with my lovely daughter."

"There's nothing I would enjoy more, sir." Skinner straightened to his full height, smoothed his jacket, and offered his arm. If he was party to their conspiracy, he did not show it. "Miss Scully? Would you do me the honor?"

"I... Yes, certainly. Thank you. Just...let me get my bonnet."

She retreated quickly to her bedroom at the top of the stairs. Butterflies swarmed her stomach as she fumbled with the ribbons of her straw Fanchon. Her hands shook so badly, it took three false starts before she managed to tie a decent bow beneath her chin. Her nervousness surprised her. She could cut into living flesh without flinching, or calmly dispute questionable medical practices with a roomful of veteran surgeons, and yet the prospect of a short stroll in the moonlight with the lieutenant had her quaking like a rabbit.

"Steady yourself," she said to her reflection in the mirror above the bureau. "He's just a man."

The man her father had chosen to be her husband, she thought with trepidation. What was she getting herself into? Charlie had described Skinner as an upright sort, bound by duty and honor, and he seemed to be exactly that. Would he expect similarly strict behavior from her and, if so, could she be that sort of person? Suppose he was controlling in the extreme, a traditionalist, who would not abide a wife working outside the home. What then?

In truth, she knew practically nothing about him and yet here she was anticipating the worst. Find out who he really is, she chided herself, before casting him in the role of dictatorial tyrant. A physician does not prescribe treatment before performing an exam. He bases his diagnosis on facts, not hearsay. Skinner deserved equal consideration. She would not pass judgment until she learned more about him firsthand.

Tugging on her gloves, she took a deep breath and headed downstairs to the front entry where Skinner waited, hat in hand. Charlie stood beside him, grinning like a court jester.

"Have fun, you two." Charlie kissed Dana lightly on the cheek. He smelled of brilliantine, the perfumed oil he used to tame his unruly hair. Before pulling away, he whispered into her ear, "To hell with propriety, Sis?"

Her face heated at the memory of her words, uttered just days ago in a moment of frustration.

She decided to ignore his remark and slipped her arm through Skinner's.

The lieutenant led her across the front porch and out onto the quadrangle. A cool breeze carried the murky scent of the river and the tang of prairie grass. They walked without speaking. Overhead, stars twinkled like gold dust in a dark mountain stream. Crickets chirped in the weeds, trying to attract potential mates, their cadence at odds with the rhythm of a melody that drifted across the green from the enlisted men's quarters. A young trooper was entertaining a gathering of his fellow soldiers on the barrack's boardwalk. He sang "Rock Me to Sleep, Mother" a capella, his voice as faultless as an angel: "Slumber’s soft charms o’er my heavy lids creep. Rock me to sleep, mother, rock me to sleep."

"Dinner was delicious," Skinner said, clearing his throat. "You're a fine cook, Miss Scully."

"Not really. Mother and Millie prepared the lion's share of the meal."

"But you helped...I imagine."

"With only one dish."

"Oh." His brow creased and the muscles of his arm tensed beneath her hand. He was an imposing man, taller than her by a head, and immaculately dressed, just as he had been the day they first met. His cuffs and collar were spotless. His brass buttons and polished scabbard gleamed as brightly as the moon. He worked his jaw as he struggled to find his next words. After a moment, he asked, "Which one?"

"Pardon?"

"Which dish did you prepare?"

"Oh...the bread sauce," she said, feeling a blush creep up her neck. Her mediocre culinary skills were a running joke in the family, but at the moment she saw no humor in her lack of domestic talent. For the first time, she felt embarrassed by it. And irritated by her embarrassment. She was a doctor, not a housekeeper. A good one, too. She did not wish to have her character judged on a single pot of burnt bread sauce.

He tugged at his collar. Adjusted his glasses. "Ah. Well. It...it was excellent."

"It was scorched, Lieutenant. It tasted like charcoal."

"That's...exactly the way I like it." His voice remained gruff, but his brief smile appeared genuine.

They sauntered across the parade ground toward the main gate. No light shone in the windows of the Flatwillow Picayune. The smithy's anvil stood silent in front of the forge. The Indian gate, where Fox Mulder had abandoned his pelts at Cap's feet a few days earlier, was shut tight.

"Why does your friend Mr. Mulder supply guns to the Indians?" she asked, searching for a topic of conversation and curious about "Crazy Fox," the unorthodox man who lived alone in the mountains and dared spurn society's rules.

"He believes we don't belong here."

"The Army?"

"White men in general."

It seemed an odd point of view. "And you? What do you believe?"

"Whatever my superiors tell me to believe." Another brief smile accompanied his comment.

"You're not entitled to your own opinion?"

"A soldier either agrees with his superiors, Miss Scully, or he keeps his mouth shut. Which is precisely why Mulder is no longer a soldier."

"Was he discharged for insubordination?"

"Not exactly. After we fought the Mexicans, he decided it was best to retire from military service. He spent a few years traveling abroad. Eventually, he ended up here."

Skinner steered her past the blockhouse and out the fort's main gate, nodding solemnly at the two soldiers who stood guard. Gravel crunched underfoot as they continued along the dirt road to the river. The call of night herons pierced the dark with their startling qua-quak-quark! The odor of silt and decaying vegetation hung heavily in the air. The river reflected the Milky Way and, to the west, snowy mountain peaks glistened in the moonlight like St. Elmo's fire.

The dock was deserted, the Dauntless no longer moored there, having set out for St. Louis several days ago. The solitude made Dana nervous. Cap apparently trusted Lieutenant Skinner to keep her safe, but etiquette required they be accompanied by a trustworthy chaperone, to protect her virtue and her reputation.

“We’re out of view of the guards at gate,” she warned.

“Don’t worry; the Indians won’t bother us here,” he said, mistaking her concern.

The moon's reflection rippled and bobbed in the river; a slow current sloshed against the shore. The heels of Skinner's boots thudded hollowly against the wooden planks as they walked the length of the pier.

He stopped at the edge and, for several minutes, said nothing as he took in the magnificent view. Dana found herself doing the same, spellbound by the scale of the mountains. Limestone cliffs rose thousands of feet above the plain, like a massive fortress, forbidding and mysterious. At such close range, they filled her field of vision, seemed to loom over her. Feeling momentarily overwhelmed, she clung more tightly to Skinner's arm. For the first time since girlhood, she felt the need for a strong, male protector and was grateful for the lieutenant's guardianship.

"I've been looking forward to making your acquaintance for some time, Miss Scully," he said, evidently misreading her iron grip.

"Have you?"

"I believe your father told you that I'm interested in...um...." He removed his hat. "What I mean to say is...I've been a widower for six years..."

Her hands began their silly quaking again.

"Are you cold, Miss Scully?"

Before she could say she was fine, he unbuttoned his frockcoat. Juggling his hat from hand to hand, he shrugged out of his sleeves and, once freed, draped the coat over her shoulders. It carried the heat of his body and held his spicy scent, a heady mix of Bay Rum shaving soap, Virginia tobacco, horse hide, and male sweat.

"Better?"

"Yes, thank you." The coat felt like an embrace, overly intimate, yet comforting and welcome. The mountains seemed to retreat a little.

"What was I saying?" he asked after a moment.

"You mentioned you are a widower. If you don't mind my asking, what was she like?"

“My wife?”

Dana nodded.

"Liddiah was...selfless. Mannerly." He paused, appearing to choose his words with care. "A loving mother to our sons. Considerate to me."

A biddable woman, in other words. Not at all like me, Dana thought miserably, anticipating the lieutenant's disappointment. And her father's. "You must miss her very much."

"It is my greatest regret I couldn't be with her at the end. Twelve years of marriage and the number of days we spent in one another's company would scarcely add up to a month's time."

This surprised her. She assumed he had lived with his wife in an officer's house much like her parents'. "You never considered bringing her with you?"

"No, no. I've traveled from battlefront to battlefront since I was sixteen. I am content to live in the worst conditions. A place like this," -- he gestured broadly with his hat -- "is fine for a soldier, but for a lady, well, it didn't seem suitable at the time."

She detected doubt in his tone. "You've changed your mind?"

"Let's say I'm not as certain as I once was, about a lot of things." He stepped away from her to stare down at the star-speckled water. "In Liddiah's final letter, she confessed to me that she often sat on our back porch after tucking the boys into bed. She sometimes waited there a few minutes, sometimes until dawn, all the while looking westward, watching, hoping I might miraculously appear out of the darkness. She said she imagined me marching from the woods, crossing the swale that bounded our property, and climbing the porch steps to join her on the bench there. Of course, I never did."

"You were doing your job."

"Knowing that does little to console me now. I learned later from Agatha, our housekeeper, that Liddiah passed away on that porch bench. Her last night on earth was spent waiting for me to return."

Tears pricked Dana’s eyes. "How very sad."

"Yes. My absence hurt her and her pain was not eased by my infrequent and brief homecomings. She was alone most of our married life. Lonely, too, in spite of the boys, I think. The fault was mine."

"You are too hard on yourself." She stepped closer and linked her arm with his once more.

"And you are very kind." He patted her gloved hand. "Might you consider calling me Walter?"

"Are we so well acquainted already?"

Two ruddy splotches appeared high on his cheeks. "No, perhaps not. I'm sorry if I'm being too forward, Miss Scully. I've never been one to waste time or mince words. And I thought... Your father relayed my intentions, did he not?"

Indeed, Cap's letter had been very clear on the subject. He had hand-picked this man to be her husband. He had also implied she would accept the lieutenant's proposal no matter what her personal feelings might be. But were they to discuss marriage already?

"Lieutenant, please, we have only just met."

Disappointment shadowed his eyes. "You're right, of course. Pardon my presumption."

She immediately regretted cutting him off. They had just met, it was true, but what was the point of putting off the subject? Her father wanted her to marry the lieutenant and Skinner was obviously amenable to the idea. She had traveled all this way to meet him. They should become familiar, find out whether or not they were well-matched, before her father started making arrangements with a preacher or her mother began altering her wedding gown to fit Dana.

"Walter..." It felt strange to call him by his Christian name so soon, but she was determined to press on, learn as much as she could about him. Equally important, she wanted him to understand her. She had vowed to be honest with Cap. The man who might one day be her husband deserved no less. "Walter, you say you are not one to waste time or mince words. Well, neither am I. So, given our similar attitudes, I think you should know that I plan to practice medicine here at the fort, even after I marry...should I marry...anyone. What I mean to say is...what I *am* saying is..."

He looked as confused as she felt.

She took a deep breath. "At day's end, my doctor's apron will be stained with blood and vomit, and I will reek of disease and decayed flesh. If you are looking for a wife who prefers ribbons and lace to bandages and bedpans, you would do well to look elsewhere. Any husband of mine will require a tolerant nature and a very strong stomach."

His eyes widened behind his spectacles. "Well. I see you are a woman who speaks her mind."

"I am. Yes. And if you find my forthrightness disagreeable--"

"Not disagreeable...not exactly..."

"No? Then what is your impression?"

He seemed at a loss.

"My father didn't mention my desire to work, did he?" she asked.

"No. Captain Scully said you were away at school, but he didn't elaborate."

"And you didn't think to question him?"

"He is my superior officer, Miss Scully."

"Yes, of course. I see. You are not allowed to state your opinions or, apparently, ask questions either." Her jab was perhaps unfair, but she felt compelled to voice her frustration. "We are in the same boat then."

"How do you mean?"

"You are restrained by rank and military protocol; I am restrained by the rules of society. There is a distinct and important difference in our situations, however."

"Which would be...?"

"You chose your position, Lieutenant, whereas I did not."

It took him a moment to respond. When he did, he spoke softly, but firmly. "I don't believe that is our only difference."

She fought the urge to remove her hand from his arm. "I have a medical degree and, married or not, I plan to practice medicine. Tell me plainly, here and now, how you feel about that."

The muscles of his jaw tightened. His fingers worried the brim of his hat, nearly crushing it.

"Surely you can offer an opinion on this, Lieutenant, without first checking with your superior officer. Or am I wrong in that assumption, too?" She was being rude, she knew, but she had to know if he supported her decision to be a doctor or not.

Anger sparked in his eyes as he struggled to keep his temper. "I think it's acceptable for a woman who is without means to work in an appropriate profession."

"And what professions do you deem 'appropriate' for women?"

"Typical feminine vocations, naturally, like governess, or seamstress, or cook."

"But not doctor?"

A sigh chuffed from his nose. "Miss Scully, your father provides for you, does he not?" It was a rhetorical question evidently, because he continued without pause. "He paid for your education. For the clothes you are wearing. For the dinner we just enjoyed. And I would...what I mean to say is...your future husband would provide these things for you after you are married."

"Suppose I want to provide for myself."

"But there is no need!"

"There is desire, sir!" The last of her patience evaporated. "There is...desire!"

His patience was apparently spent, too, for he hooked a muscled arm around her waist, hauled her to him, and pressed his lips firmly against hers.

His scent flooded her sinuses; his taste skated across her tongue. He tightened his embrace and the heat of his body seemed to sear her from breastbone to belly. Gooseflesh prickled her skin. Her pulse quickened, thundered in her ears. She fought to breathe...to think. It had been months since she last felt this way. In Daniel Waterston's arms. Another illicit kiss that had nearly been her undoing.

A whimper escaped her throat. She pushed with weakened arms against his broad chest.

He released her immediately and stumbled back a step. "Desire indeed, Miss Scully, on both our parts, so it would seem." He straightened his frockcoat. "And might I point out, I did not seek my captain's permission before expressing my feelings on this particular subject."

She blinked at him, shocked by his daring. Shocked even more by her own yearning to be taken in his arms and kissed yet again. Before she could surrender to her reckless passion, she mumbled, "Excuse me," and lurched away on wobbly legs. She ran toward the house, ignoring his concerned shouts. At the fort's main gate, his coat slipped from her shoulders and she left it lying in the dusty road.

By the time she reached her father's front porch, she was gasping for breath. She fumbled with the latch, pushed her way into the house, and ran smack into Charlie.

"Dana, what is it? What's happened?" Concern peaked his brows.

"Nothing. I'm fine."

"Clearly, you're not."

"I am." She gave him a pleading look. "Please, don't say anything about this to father."

"Anything about what?" Cap appeared in the hall from the dining room. Bill Jr. followed closely at his heels. "Where is Lieutenant Skinner? Dana? I'm waiting for an answer!"

 

Continued in Chapter 6

 

THE MOUNTAIN MAN
HOME

e-mail: nejake@tds.net