"I demand to know what's happened!" Cap clutched Dana's upper arm. A mix of fear and outrage darkened his face. "Where is Skinner?"
"If he has taken liberties..." Bill Jr. balled his fists and looked angry enough to punch a hole through a wall.
"I'm here," Skinner said from beyond the open front door. He clutched his dusty coat to his chest. His face glistened with sweat.
Cap tightened his grip on Dana. She panicked. Wrenching free, she pushed past her brothers, and bolted up the front staircase to her bedroom.
Inside, she slammed the door behind her. She leaned heavily against it and, gulping air into her lungs, tried to decide what to do next. Pack her trunk and demand that Charlie escort her back to New York? Or maybe she should head to Georgia, where she had intended to go in the first place.
She crossed to the washstand to turn up the flame in the oil lamp. Its dim glow did little to illuminate the room's shadows or her uncertain state of mind. She opened the wardrobe, grabbed an armload of dresses, and dumped them onto the bed.
One by one, she hurriedly folded skirts and shirtwaists, readying them for her travel trunk, wondering when the Dauntless was due to return to the fort. Her father would try to talk her out of going...after he lectured her about her recklessness and loose morals. He would compare her scandalous behavior to Melissa’s. "I am determined not to lose you as we have lost her," he had written in his letter. But would he feel the same after he heard she had kissed Lieutenant Skinner? Was the lieutenant describing what had happened between them right now?
A knock on the door startled her, causing her to drop the chemisette she was folding.
"Dana, may I come in, please?" her mother asked from the outer hall, her voice thin with worry.
"I'm fine, Mother. I just need a few minutes to myself." She grabbed the chemisette from the braided rug and tried to refold it, but it bunched beneath her numbed hands, stubbornly refusing to lay flat.
"Please, sweetheart," Maggie pleaded. "I need to know you're all right."
Her mother's urgent tone pierced her heart. What was she doing, packing her things and running away? Her family loved her. They wanted what was best for her. Yet she seemed bent on defying -- and disappointing -- them at every turn. Just as Melissa had done. She balled up the chemisette and threw it onto the bed. Reluctantly, she opened the door.
Maggie's gaze darted past her to the pile of clothes. Her expression hardened. She stepped into the room and quietly closed the door behind her.
Mouth gone suddenly dry, Dana felt like a small child again, caught stealing a slice of Bill Jr.'s birthday cake. She sank onto the bed and plucked at the patterned quilt. Her fingers grazed a familiar patch of fabric, soft red wool from a coat she had owned as a child, lovingly stitched by her mother years ago. Her throat tightened. "I'm fine, Mom. Really."
Maggie sat down beside her and took hold of her hand. "Tell me the truth." She stroked Dana's fingers. "It's obvious you're upset. Did the lieutenant overstep his bounds?"
"No. Yes. Maybe."
"Which is it?"
Dana lowered her eyes. "We kissed."
Maggie's hand went still. "I see."
"Only...? Dana, he had no right to kiss you at all! Not until you are formally engaged. Your father will be furious."
"The fault wasn't entirely the lieutenant’s."
"A gentleman doesn’t take advantage of a lady under any circumstances, Dana. To think we trusted this man."
"Mother, listen to me, please. I didn’t mind it. I...I kind of liked it."
Maggie released her hand. Disapproval furrowed her brow. She stood and began to pace.
"Is it so terrible to want to kiss a man?" Dana asked.
"Yes, if he is not your husband. And Lieutenant Skinner is not your husband, not yet."
"Are you telling me you never kissed a man before you married Father?"
“Of course not!”
“Didn’t you want to?”
Maggie crossed her arms and glared at Dana. "Wanting and doing are two very different things and you know it. We talked about this before you left for college. A woman must control her passions."
"It seems society prefers we have no passions at all."
Maggie ignored her comment and continued to pace. "We'll plan for a short engagement and a September wedding. A month should give Mrs. Etherage time to alter my gown."
Dana could not believe what she was hearing.
"Blanketflower will be in bloom," her mother went on, "and mountain bluebells. They'll make an acceptable bouquet--"
"The hog will be ready for slaughter by then. We could serve pork with turnip. Or maybe roast grouse and vol-au-vent of greengages. Which do you think? Fruit jolly would go well in either case."
Dana stood and headed for the door. The situation was getting out of hand. She had to straighten things out immediately. "I'm going to talk to the lieutenant."
Maggie cut her off. "Absolutely not. Your father will talk to him and they'll come to an understanding."
"What sort of understanding? If they’re discussing my future, I would prefer to be there to speak on my own behalf."
"That's not the way it's done." Maggie reached out and patted Dana's arm. She smiled for the first time since entering the room. "Don't worry, sweetheart. Everything will work out for the best...just a little sooner than we anticipated."
"I'm not marrying Lieutenant Skinner, Mother. I won't. I can't. We're practically strangers."
"You just kissed him, Dana. You can hardly consider him a stranger now."
"But I don't love him. I barely know him."
"Pish-posh. You wouldn't be the first woman to marry a man she barely knows, believe me. Love will come. You just have to work a little harder at it."
* * *
Downstairs, Skinner stepped into the hall to confront the Scully men.
Bill Jr. shouldered past the Captain to poke Skinner in the chest with an accusing finger. The smell of cabernet rolled off his breath and Skinner hoped he was not drunk.
"I've known you a long time, Walter." Bill Jr. was a big man with fists like bricks. Skinner had seen him drop a man with a single punch...on more than one occasion. "Tell me you didn't lay a hand on my sister."
Skinner met his steely gaze, but addressed the Captain. "Permission to speak with you, sir...in private."
Bill Jr.'s eyes narrowed. "You son of a bitch." He pulled back for a punch.
"Stand down!" Captain Scully grabbed his son's sleeve and stopped him mid-swing. "I'll handle this."
Bill Jr.'s nostrils flared; he lifted his chin and straightened to his full height. He appeared ready to fight his father for the right to beat the life out of Skinner.
Skinner felt guilty enough to let him do it, too. He should not have kissed Miss Scully. It was unpardonable. And completely unlike him to lose control like that. What had prompted such loutish behavior? Her beauty? His desire? No, it was something more than that; it was the fire in her eyes when she dared him to speak his mind. Like a match to gunpowder, the challenge had set him ablaze. For the first time in decades, he had acted without deliberation. A mistake, clearly. What must she think of him? What must these men -- her brothers, her father -- think?
Captain Scully was glowering at Bill Jr. for the moment. "I repeat, stand down, soldier. That's an order." His tone defied argument.
Disappointment huffed from Bill Jr.'s nose, but he surrendered to his father's will and rank.
"Outside, Lieutenant," the Captain commanded Skinner.
"Yes, sir." Skinner tried to hide his nervousness as he walked out onto the porch ahead of the Captain. He threw on his coat and quickly buttoned it up to the neck.
Behind him, the door snicked shut. Captain Scully crossed the porch with thudding steps, passed him without a sideward glance, his face scarlet, his jaw set. Righteous indignation poured off him like steam from a smithy's forge. He stood at the edge of the porch and removed a cigar and a match from his coat pocket. He said nothing, clearly trying to rein in his temper as he lit his cigar.
He puffed slowly, sending the aroma of smoldering tobacco into the night air. Skinner wished the circumstances were more congenial and they were sharing the pleasure of a fine smoke, as they had done several months earlier when they came to an agreement about Dana.
"Did you take liberties with my daughter?" the captain asked bluntly.
"On my honor, sir, I only kissed her."
"Your honor? What about my daughter's honor?" Captain Scully tossed his unfinished cigar to the ground. It sparked as it hit the dust. "I trusted you, soldier. We had an agreement."
"And I have every intention of honoring that agreement, sir. This changes nothing."
"It changes everything, most especially my opinion of you."
Captain Scully stepped off the porch into the street. Hands clasped behind his back, he gazed up at the sky. The moon glowed dully behind a thin overcast. He rocked on the balls of his feet.
"Let me tell you a story, Lieutenant. When Dana was six, she begged me to let her go riding with her brother Bill, who had become quite an accomplished horseman by then. I put her off, saying she was too young, but she was relentless. For weeks, she pestered me almost daily about it. Finally, when she turned seven, I acquiesced. Against my better judgment." Mosquitoes swarmed around Captain Scully's head. He ignored their buzzing. "The horse I chose for her was gentle and old, and not easily spooked. But as fate would have it, moments after Dana climbed onto his back, a blast of cannon from a nearby practice field startled the horse and he took off at a gallop. I was terrified for my little girl. I quickly mounted my own horse and rode after her. Dana hung on bravely and I managed to get within arm's reach. But before I could grab the reins and slow her horse, it jumped a small stream. Dana was thrown from the saddle. She landed in the grass and didn't move. I dismounted and ran to her, my heart in my throat, my worst fears realized. I lifted her motionless body in my arms. She wasn't breathing. I prayed to God to save her. I promised Him that if He let her live, I would be a better father. More vigilant. Stricter than I had been before, for my child's sake." Captain Scully plucked a mosquito from the back of his neck. Its legs writhed as it tried to escape the pinch of his fingers. Its belly was fat with blood. He watched it struggle for a moment before continuing his story. "God heard and answered my prayers, obviously. Dana had the wind knocked out of her. Her arm was broken. But she survived. Since that day, I have worked to keep my promise to God and, as He is my witness, I will continue to do so until I draw my last breath. I will protect my daughter, Lieutenant, from any and all sources of harm." He crushed the bug between his thumb and forefinger. Blood burst from its innards onto his hand. He dropped it to the ground and pinned Skinner with a threatening stare. "Do you grasp my meaning, Lieutenant?"
Skinner swallowed hard. "Yes, sir. I understand. I am a father, too. I do what I can to keep my boys healthy and safe."
"Indeed, but it is different with girls than with boys." Captain Scully raised an eyebrow at Skinner. "On the day a daughter is born, she becomes her father's most precious possession, as Dana is mine. You can't help but adore her, nurture her, spoil her too much. You are the most important person in her limited world. You are her provider and protector. Her hero. She looks up at you with deep, pure love in her eyes. It changes you, Lieutenant. Forever."
"Yes, sir. I hope to experience it myself one day, God willing."
"Mm." Captain Scully's face was returning to a more normal color. He sauntered away from the house, down the thoroughfare.
Skinner kept pace and tried not to think about his stroll along this very path with Dana just minutes ago. His lips still tingled where he had pressed them to hers. Her taste remained sweet on his tongue.
"You overstepped your bounds," the captain said, as if reading his mind. "Your conduct was unbefitting an officer and a gentleman.”
“Do you have an explanation?”
“No, sir.” It was true. His manners had been abominable. There was no legitimate excuse for such inappropriate behavior.
“Well, I am very disappointed in you."
"Yes, sir. I offer my sincerest apologies, to you and your daughter."
"That may be, but I'm not ready to forgive you just yet. We must settle Dana's future first. Given the circumstances, I feel we need to act quickly. We must move up the wedding date. Sometime in September, or even later this month, if it suits you."
"Whenever you decide, sir, only..."
"Is there a problem?"
Captain Scully stopped walking and faced Skinner. "Out with it."
"Miss Scully mentioned she wanted to practice medicine...after she marries."
"You discussed marriage with her already? Your boldness is without bounds!"
"We talked only in the most general terms, sir."
"Yet this general conversation of yours somehow led to a kiss."
Skinner felt his patience slipping away. The captain's irritation seemed unwarranted, given the fact he had kept Miss Scully's avocation a secret. "Were you aware of your daughter's desire to practice medicine, sir?"
"She mentioned it, of course, but I saw no reason to take it seriously."
"She seems quite set on it."
"Dana can be headstrong at times, I know. But given adequate guidance, her character can be molded. She requires a little managing, is all."
"You led me to believe she was a biddable woman."
"Oh, she is, Lieutenant! With proper supervision, she will blossom. She'll make a fine wife. And a good mother to your children. I am confident you can restrain her occasional whims. After all, you are adept at controlling our enlisted men and they are far more troublesome than any woman could possibly be."
Skinner was not sure he wanted to change Dana Scully, even if he could. He admired her obvious intelligence and found her fiery spirit surprisingly alluring.
"Well then." He brushed a streak of dust from the breast of his frockcoat. "We still have an agreement? I have permission to marry your daughter?"
"Indeed. As long as you promise to behave more like a gentleman from now until you are wed."
"On that, sir, you have my word."
"Then I shall visit Reverend McGill to schedule the ceremony. When will you propose to Dana?"
"At the soonest opportunity. Tomorrow, if she'll accept my call."
"I'll see to it she does."
* * *
Thunder rumbled in the pre-dawn as Mulder steered his horse along the north rim of Buffalo Jump. The wind carried the dusty scent of bitterroot and sage. Prickly pear dotted the landscape, poking up between wild flowers and needle grass.
"Whoa, Ponoká." He pulled back on the reins. The horse stopped short of the precipice, tossed its head, and snorted.
Buffalo Jump, black and seemingly bottomless, yawned before him. The 300-meter-long, 10-meter-high pit had been used by the Indians to hunt buffalo for centuries. They drove large herds across the grassy highlands toward the hidden ravine, funneling them at a full gallop through drive lanes marked by rock cairns. The panicked beasts, realizing the danger too late, hurtled over the precipice into the gorge. Some died instantly, but most merely collapsed on broken legs. Immobilized, they became easy prey for the hunters.
Mulder slid from his saddle and let the reins hang so the horse could graze while he recovered the gunpowder and percussion caps from their hiding place in the ravine below. Walking to the overhang, he looked for the way down and, not for the first time, wondered about the identity of his unknown accomplice, the man who regularly supplied him with weapons and ammunition. He had nicknamed this helper "The Eye," after Allan Pinkerton, head of General McClellan's now defunct secret service. Mulder had worked as one of Pinkerton's spies for nearly a year after his return from Europe. He found he was skilled at ferreting out intelligence on Confederate battle plans, troop movements, and supplies. But then McClellan was removed from command in '62 and Pinkerton resigned his position and returned to Chicago. Mulder decided to move west, too, to search for Samantha instead of secessionist sympathizers.
It was while he was looking for his sister that Mulder discovered a secondary mission: helping the Indians survive the Army's relentless attacks. The Eye had proven an invaluable ally, if a secret one. He not only supplied weapons, but provided military intelligence as well. The outcome at Grass Creek would have been far worse if not for an advance warning from The Eye.
A steep washout made a serviceable path down into the ravine. Mulder followed it, sliding as he went, kicking up loose gravel. Pebbles bounced on the rocky incline and rained with a hollow clatter onto the piles of bones below.
Tens of thousands of buffalo bones, bleached white by decades of sun, clogged the basin. Difficult to get to and riddled with nooks and crannies large enough to conceal weapons and ammunition, they made a perfect hiding place.
After a few minutes of searching, Mulder located the items The Eye had left for him. He was pleased to find a rifle there, too -- an Enfield, practically new. It would replace the one he had lost to Cuts To Pieces.
He scrambled back up the slope to the top of the cliff and whistled for his horse. Ponoká trotted to him, grass hanging from his mouth. "Good boy." Mulder patted the horse's flank, then slipped the Enfield into his carbine boot. He tucked the can of gunpowder and the blasting caps into the saddlebags.
"Only one more stop, I promise," he told the horse as he fitted a moccasin into the stirrup and hoisted himself into the saddle.
The wind gusted, stirring up a dust devil. Mulder's long hair writhed. Another roll of thunder echoed through the hills.
If the storm held off, he could make it to Culbertson, deliver Red Crow's medallion to Captain Scully, and be back in his cabin by midday. He touched the reins to the horse's neck, turning him toward the fort.
* * *
Dana rose at daybreak and dressed in her riding habit and low-heeled boots. She had barely slept a wink all night. Plagued by the events of the previous evening, she had alternately tossed beneath her covers and paced her room. An early morning ride would help calm her nerves before she had to face Cap.
He had sent Millie to her room late last night with a message.
"Captain said to report to his study at oh-eight-hundred, sharp."
I'm not one of his soldiers, Dana had wanted to say, but instead simply thanked Millie and quietly shut her door.
The clock on her vanity chimed the half-hour. Six-thirty -- plenty of time for a quick outing. She hastily twisted her hair into a chignon, pinned on a feather-trimmed riding hat, and tugged on her sporting gloves.
She tiptoed down the stairs, careful to avoid the warped board on the bottommost step, which tended to squeak. Silently, she lifted the latch on the front door and slipped outside. To her relief, no one had seen her or tried to stop her.
Her skirt and petticoats gathered dew as she crossed the grassy quadrangle on her way to the livery. Lanterns burned in the windows of the enlisted men's quarters across the parade ground. The soldiers would be out and about soon. She hastened her step.
She entered the livery through its open, double doors and headed down the center aisle in search of the tack room. The horses shifted noisily in their stalls, turning to watch as she marched past. Soft lantern light spilled onto the dirt floor at the far end of the barn. She headed toward it, guessing she would find a stablehand there oiling saddles and polishing brasses, in preparation for the day's maneuvers.
A runty, disheveled young soldier nearly ran her down when he pushed a wheelbarrow of fresh manure out of a stall and into her path.
"Oh! Sorry, miss!" He smiled shyly, showing a broken eyetooth. Pimples spotted his beardless chin. "Didn't expect to see no one at this hour. 'Specially not no lady. Can I help you with somethin'?"
"I'd be grateful if you'd point the way to the tack room."
"You goin' for a ride?"
"Yes, I am."
"It's mighty early, miss, if you don't mind my sayin'. Sun's just comin' up."
"I enjoy riding early in the day, Private...?"
"Name's Lewis Strum, miss." He tipped his cap and grinned, not moving out from behind his load of steaming manure.
"Are the saddles this way, Private Strum?" She started toward the lantern light.
"Yes'm, but let me get that for you." The private launched into motion at last. He hurried past her. "It'll take me just two shakes of a donkey's diddler -- oh, sorry!" His face reddened. "Pardon my language, miss. I'm not...I mean...I don't--"
"It's all right, Private. I've heard worse." In fact, she would likely hear far worse from Cap in about an hour's time.
"Oh, well then, um, you wait here. I'll just be... I'll be right back."
While Lewis fetched the riding gear, Dana inspected the horses. A tovero with blue eyes and medicine hat markings caught her attention. She held out her gloved hand and the mare nuzzled her palm.
"Ain't she somethin'?" Lewis reappeared, gear in hand. "Prettiest gal in here, 'ceptin' yourself, a course. Unhook that gate and I'll saddle her up for you."
"No need, Private Strum, I can do it my--"
"Wouldn't dream of making you wade through all that sh-- Dang, guess I ain't used to talkin' to a lady. The gals over to the brothel, well, they don't mind a guy sayin' any ol' thing, like...um... well... I should just saddle that horse now, huh?"
"Please." She unlatched the stall door and swung it open.
He shuffled past, nudged the mare aside, and placed the saddle atop the half-wall between the stalls. "Sorry we ain't got no sidesaddles, miss." He hung the bridle on a nearby hook and smoothed a blue, wool blanket over the horse's back.
"A regulation saddle will be fine, Private. I often ride one."
"You do?" His gaze dropped to her skirt. He licked his lips.
She crossed her arms. "Are you sure I can't help with that?"
"No, no, I got it. Take me just two shakes-- Oops, almost done it again! My apologies." His eyes never left her as he hoisted the saddle into place. He hastily cinched the girth, then slipped the bridled over the horse's nose and fitted the bit to its mouth. "All set, miss." He handed her the reins.
She led the tovero outside and mounted, ignoring Private Strum's blatant stare.
The guards at Culbertson's front gate seemed no less shocked to see her sitting astride a horse like a man. They watched with wide eyes and hanging jaws as she rode past, but did nothing to stop her.
A northerly wind battered the tepees around the fort, shaking their frames and slapping the loose hide coverings. A storm was brewing. Ruddy clouds rode the sky like red-sailed schooners. Thunder rattled in the distance.
Dana rode on, following the river's snaking path to the mountains, confident the storm was miles away yet. In any event, she had no intention of going far; being late to her father's lecture was not an option.
She tried to clear her mind as she rode, setting aside her confusion over last night's kiss and the upheaval it had caused. She concentrated instead on the rhythm of the horse's hooves, the flap of her skirts, the push and tug of the swirling wind. Cresting the foothills, she lost sight of the fort, which suited her fine.
The mountains loomed ahead. Wild and vast, they offered a temporary refuge, a respite from her father's judgment and her own uncertainty. She entertained the hope of finding an answer to her future atop the unfamiliar cliffs.
Climbing higher, she felt her troubles lift. For the moment, she was free.
* * *
The first drops of rain fell as Mulder started down a switchback on Ptarmigan Hill. Lightning flashed to the north. He silently ticked off the seconds: one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand.... Thunder clapped on the count of five.
The storm was closing in faster than he had anticipated. The skies would open before he could reach the fort.
"I say we head home, Ponoká." He guided the horse along a rocky embankment. "What do you say?"
He was about to turn off the trail and head west to his cabin on Nine Pipe Ridge when he spotted a rider in the gulch below.
"I'll be damned."
It was a woman. Captain Scully's red-haired daughter, to be precise. She was riding a showy tovero and, despite her long skirt, she sat in the saddle like a man.
Rain began to fall harder. The wind lashed at Miss Scully's wet clothes. Every now and again, she clamped a gloved hand over her hat to keep it from blowing away. Yet she picked her way steadily around boulders and pines, climbing ever higher up the steep switchback.
"Must be lost," Mulder murmured. "Guess we should help her out, huh?" He urged his horse downhill with a click of his tongue.
A moment later, a sizzling bolt of lightning brought him up short. It struck a forty-foot lodgepole pine to Miss Scully's right. The crack of thunder was deafening. Ozone seared the air. Bark exploded from the tree. Burning branches crashed to the ground in a shower of sparks and flame.
The tovero whinnied and reared. Eyes bulging, it pawed the air. The captain's daughter struggled to control her mount.
More lightning flashed. Thunder pummeled the mountains. The tovero pranced and bucked. Its saddle slipped to one side, the cinch apparently not fastened tightly enough. The captain's daughter was thrown off balance. Unseated, she fell from the horse. The trovero bolted.
To Mulder's horror he saw that Miss Scully's foot was caught in the stirrup. She was dragged several yards before her boot came off. Freed, she tumbled over a rock outcropping and out of sight.
"Gettup!" Mulder dug his heels into Ponoká's sides. The horse's hooves skittered over wet rock and mud as he scrambled downhill. The tovero ran past, terrified, saddle swinging loosely beneath its belly. Mulder pushed his horse to go faster.
Ponoká careened and slid down the path. Rain fell in sheets. Blinking water from his eyes, Mulder spotted the woman lying sodden and unmoving in a heap between two boulders.
He jumped from his horse and ran to her side. Her face was badly scratched. Blood oozed from her right temple into her eye. She had lost her hat, as well as a boot.
"Miss Scully?" Was she breathing? He knelt beside her and placed a hand on her chest. He felt no rise. Frantic, he pressed an ear to her heart.
There was a beat. Relief flooded through him.
She stirred, eyelids fluttering. For a moment it seemed she saw him. But her eyes closed again. She moaned and mumbled something...a familiar phrase: inihkatsimat -- help -- the Blackfoot word he had taught her at the fort. She must think him an Indian...again.
"You're going to be fine, Miss Scully," he said, not sure he believed it.
He lifted her in his arms and carried her to his horse. Ponoká stood patiently in the downpour while Mulder hoisted the unconscious woman into the saddle and climbed on behind her.
Another flash of lightning sparked overhead. He had to get under cover, someplace safe where he could tend the woman's wounds. The fort was too far. The only option was his mountain cabin.
He spurred his horse and turned toward Nine Pipe Ridge.
Continued in Chapter 7
THE MOUNTAIN MAN