"Up you go, Sprout." Her father lifted her into the saddle.
It felt as if Dana could see all of Winneshiek County from Old Isaac's broad back. She scratched the horse behind his gray ears.
"Hold the reins properly. Like I taught you." Her father positioned her hands and tucked the leather straps beneath her fingers.
Her feet barely reached the stirrups. She gasped when Isaac shifted his weight to twitch a fly from his withers.
"Maybe I should reattach the lunge line."
"No, Daddy! I'm not a baby anymore. You promised I could ride by myself this time."
"So I did." He looked her up and down, inspecting her posture. "Knees tight to the saddle. Heels down. Eyes ahead. You sure you're ready?"
"Very well then..." He slapped Isaac's rump and the horse trotted off.
Remembering her lessons, Dana began to post, rising smoothly in the saddle with each jostling stride of the horse. It felt wonderful! It felt like flying!
"Don't leave my sight. And don't go beyond Jack Rowe's fence!" her father shouted from where he stood by his own horse, a Chickasaw named Black Dandy.
"I know," she called back.
She and Missy were never allowed beyond the fence. Fort Atkinson's battery set up artillery in Rowe's field, to shoot at targets made of hay bales. She could see the soldiers off in the distance now, positioning a smoothbore. Daddy had taught her to recognize the different cannons and, from knob to face, she could name all of their parts. But she was never, ever supposed to go near one unless he was with her.
The smoothbore lurched as it discharged. Smoke puffed from the muzzle. Seconds later, a loud bang echoed across the valley. Old Isaac broke into a canter. Dana was thrilled! She hung on tight, dug in her heels, and urged the horse to a gallop. The wind whipped the bonnet from her head. She had never ridden so fast. She laughed out loud.
"Dana!" Her father's shout came from far behind her.
She turned to look over her shoulder, to tell him not to worry, that she was all right. But he was already speeding toward her on Black Dandy. He looked scared. And seeing him scared made her afraid, too, because nothing ever frightened her daddy.
Old Isaac sped across the meadow, faster than she would have thought possible. He headed toward a stream that flowed east to Turkey River. He intended to jump it, she realized with alarm. She had jumped rails in the practice ring, but nothing as wide as this.
She pulled back on the reins. Stubbornly, the horse refused to obey. He tossed his head and the reins jerked from her hands. They bounced out of reach.
Clutching the horse's mane to keep from falling off, she glanced again in her father's direction. Inexplicably, he had disappeared from the meadow and a long-haired Indian on a painted stallion chased her in his place.
The world became a blur of green and blue as Isaac raced on. Ahead, the stream appeared as broad as a mill pond.
"Help!" she called to the Indian.
At her cry, he leaned forward in his saddle and spurred his horse. Eagle feathers fluttered like panicked birds in his wind-whipped hair as he gained on Old Isaac. Soon the horses galloped side by side. Their thudding hooves sounded like thunder. The Indian reached for Isaac's flapping reins, but he was too late--
Isaac hurdled into the air and Dana was flung from the saddle. It seemed she fell forever, tumbling and rolling, snatching at branches as she slid down an embankment toward the stream. She splashed into the water and came to a jolting stop when she crashed headlong into a boulder.
Her skirt quickly soaked up water until it became so sodden she could not drag herself from the cold stream. Muddy and helpless, she searched the meadow for the Indian, but he was gone, vanished as mysteriously as her father and Black Dandy. Sitting on the flat above her, a lone fox with green eyes watched over her.
* * *
Dana awoke from her nightmare with a gasp, and for one frantic moment feared she had been blinded by her fall; she could see nothing but black.
Stay calm, she counseled, fighting both panic and a thick fog in her brain. Shifting slightly, she discovered she was lying on her side in a narrow bed, her right eye swollen nearly shut, her left pressed into a pillow that smelled of mildew and sweat.
She shoved the pillow to the floor. The movement caused her head to swim and her stomach to roll, but her vision cleared, much to her relief.
Two small windows and a hurricane lantern on a coarsely-made table illuminated the room. Her surroundings were unfamiliar: a rustic log cabin, its walls chinked with mud and moss. Firelight flickered on a low ceiling, which was supported by enormous crossbeams. The bed was located several feet from the table, its headboard pressed against the wall and the foot sticking out into the room. A shaggy buffalo hide covered the mattress. A fire crackled behind her back, but did little to dispel the chill of her damp clothes. The air smelled of wood smoke, pine, and wet wool.
Snowshoes, leg traps, animal skins, fishing rods, axe handles, and other utilitarian objects lay strewn about the cabin. There were numerous native artifacts, too: fringed, hide garments with intricate embroidery, bows and arrows, rattles, drums, and long-stemmed pipes. Then there were the oddities, things so strange Dana wondered if she might still be dreaming: skulls of exotic animals, crystalline rocks of various sizes and shapes, brilliant feathers, ivory carvings, jars of powders, plaster casts of fantastical footprints.
Most striking of all, however, were the pictures; dozens of photographs, sketches, newspaper clippings, and lithographs were tacked to the walls. A charcoal rubbing on a sheet of oversized parchment stood out among the rest. In it, a row of armless, human-like figures stood shoulder to shoulder. They had enormous heads and eyes like saucers. Short horns protruded from their round skulls. Circular objects with what appeared to be flames shooting from their undersides floated above them. Scrawled into the margin were the words "Petroglyph, Devil's Gulch, 13 October, 1863."
Where in God's name was she? And who had brought her here?
Her body ached. Her head pounded. Her clothes were wet and muddy. Clearly, the fall from her horse had been more than a dream. But what of the Indian? Was he real, too, or just a figment of her mind? He had looked familiar. She was certain she had seen those green eyes somewhere before...
No, she was mixing things up. Indians have brown eyes. It was the fox that had green eyes, the fox in her dream.
She raised a hand to her brow and knocked loose a cloth stained with blood. Gingerly, she prodded her temple and discovered a nasty gash beside her eye.
Head wound, loss of consciousness, confusion, memory loss. Diagnosis: concussion. But how long she had been unconscious?
Daylight seeped through the windows. Tree branches, tossed by wind, thrashed beyond the rain-streaked glass. Clouds loomed over the treetops and lightning flashed every few seconds.
Lightning had startled her horse, she remembered, while she was riding a steep mountain trail. She fell. Her foot caught in the stirrup. She was dragged for what seemed an eternity before she hit her head.
Wind whistled through the cracks in the cabin's plank door. An iron latch and oversized hinges held it firm. Muddy footprints led from the door to the bed to somewhere behind her. The tracks were too large to be her own.
The Indian? She held her breath to listen for his whereabouts. Rain drummed the cabin roof. The fire snapped and popped.
Then...a rustle of cloth. The scrape of a boot. A soft clearing of a throat.
Slowly, so as not to bring on a faint or worsen the pain in her skull, she rolled over to face the man who had rescued her.
He squatted beside a hulking, fieldstone fireplace, an Enfield rifle and oil-stained rag in his hands. Not an Indian, after all. It was the mountain man, "Crazy Fox" Mulder, and he was staring at her as intently as when she first saw him astride his painted horse on the banks of the Missouri.
Gone were his fringed leather tunic, feathers, and claw necklace. He had changed into a plain, white cotton shirt, unbuttoned at the neck, with sleeves rolled to the elbows. Braces hung loosely from the waistband of his military trousers. He wore scuffed horseman's boots instead of moccasins, and he was without vest, stock, and frockcoat, making him considerably underdressed for mixed company. The intimacy of his attire, their cramped surroundings, and the fact that she was stretched out upon his bed, caused her heart to beat faster and her mouth to go dry.
He set his rifle and cleaning rag on the floor. Nervously, it seemed, he wiped his palms on his breeches. When he stood and took a step toward her, she tried to rise, but the room tilted and the bed pitched. She moaned and lowered her head back to the mattress.
"I am at a disadvantage," she said through gritted teeth, riding out a wave of nausea, eyes shut tight against the pain.
Boot heels on bare wood marked the short distance from hearth to bedside. She opened her eyes at the sound of splashing water. He rinsed the bloodied cloth in a tin bowl on a stand beside the bed, then wrung it out and arranged it carefully across her forehead once again. Its coolness soothed her headache and helped calm her stomach.
"Thank you," she murmured.
His long, unbraided hair clung wetly to the shoulders of his dampened shirt. He pointed to her leg. "Your ankle...it's swollen."
She looked down and was surprised to find she was missing a boot. Her ankle was indeed swollen beneath her muddy and torn stocking.
He reached for it.
"What are you doing?" She drew up her knee to hide her unshod foot beneath her skirt. Pain shot up her calf.
"It could be broken," he said.
"I'll check it myself."
"You can barely sit up."
"I'm fine. And I'm a doctor."
He formed a silent "O" with his lips and let his hand drop to his side.
She wished he would step back. He was too close -- close enough for her to smell the gun oil on his skin. "I would prefer to be left alone while I examine my injury, Mr. Mulder."
"Where would you have me go, Doctor Scully?" The cabin consisted of only one room, which apparently served as kitchen, drawing room, study, and bedroom. "Outside in the storm?"
Thunder growled in the distance, low and menacing.
"Perhaps you could just...turn around. Can I trust you not to look?"
A smile twitched his lips. He turned to face the fire.
She struggled to sit up. Pain hammered her skull. Her limbs went numb and her vision dimmed. The room seemed to buzz with flying insects.
Prodromal warning signs of syncope, she thought, just before she blacked out.
* * *
Captain Scully paced between his desk and the window of his study. He opened his pocket watch to check the time...again. Dana was late. An hour and sixteen minutes late. If there was one thing he could not abide, it was tardiness. There was no excuse for it. An army could not function without strict adherence to schedules, nor could a family.
"Where in Hell is she?"
His study was located at the front of the house. A small blaze burned in the fireplace. "To take off the chill, for Dana's sake. It's cooler at these altitudes than she's probably used to," Millie had said when she started the fire a little before eight o'clock. An hour and eighteen minutes ago.
"Damn it," he grumbled, pocketing his watch. He had things to do. He was a busy man with numerous responsibilities. Ensuring that his youngest daughter was properly betrothed was only one of today's many tasks.
The sooner she was married, the better, he thought. Young people! The way they surrendered to every temptation. Self-discipline had apparently fallen by the wayside since his courting days. Imagine Mr. Monaghan's outrage had he caught him kissing Maggie prior to their engagement.
Heavy rain obscured the view of the parade ground and the enlisted men's quarters beyond. Water pounded the thoroughfare, turning dust to mud. This weather would make for messy maneuvers later in the day, but Cap had no intention of canceling. The men needed their practice. He refused to let a little thunderstorm hinder their progress.
A knock on the door brought him to a standstill. Dana was here at last.
"Come in, Magnet."
When she did not enter, he strode to the door and threw it open. To his surprise, Lieutenant Skinner and a disheveled young private stood beyond the threshold, soaked to the skin and tracking mud onto Maggie's clean floors.
"What's this about, Lieutenant?" He peered past Skinner, hoping to find Dana standing behind him in the hallway.
"Private Strum has troubling news, sir."
"I don't have time to hear about hoof rot and strangles right now."
"It ain't nuthin' like that, Cap'n, sir." Strum fidgeted with his gloves. "A horse come back to the stable with her saddle hangin' loose. Guess the cinch weren't fastened tight enough. My fault, sir. I'm plum sorry."
"Was the horse injured?"
"No, sir. Not so far as I could tell."
Such trivialities should be reported to a corporal or sergeant, not a captain. "And what of the rider? Is he all right?"
"That's the troubling part, sir."
Cap glanced from Strum to Skinner. "Could someone please enlighten me? Get to the damned point!"
"Miss Scully was on that horse, sir." Skinner looked paler than Cap had ever seen him. "She went riding this morning, shortly after sunrise. She hasn't returned."
A clap of thunder rattled the house.
"My daughter is out in this storm?" Cap resisted the urge to sit, although he felt as if his knees might give out. "Did she say where she was going?"
"Not to me, sir." Private Strum's head wagged. "I told her it was mighty early to go ridin', but she seemed set on it, said she liked bein' out at an early hour--".
"Lieutenant Skinner, form a search party immediately. Include our best trackers. I'll question my household and the men at the gate to find out which direction she might have gone." Cap grabbed his hat from his desk and, without waiting for Skinner's response, strode from the room.
* * *
When Dana awoke the second time, wind still buffeted the door and rain beat on the roof.
"Mr. Mulder?" She removed the cloth from her forehead. "Mr. Mulder, are you here?"
The only reply was the howl of wind. Where could he have gone? Certainly not out in the storm and there was no corner of the cabin she could not see--
Dana rarely swore, but her riding coat, skirt, and shirt were drying on a line tied to the rafters in front of the fireplace. Her lone boot stood on the stone hearth, with stockings and garters laid out beside it.
She peeked beneath her blanket. Sure enough, she was wearing nothing but her chamois riding breeches, corset, and chemise.
"He lives in the hills like a mad hermit," her father had said of her brazen host. "Wears feathers in his hair; dresses like a heathen. It's hard to imagine he was once a U.S. soldier."
Indeed. Whatever military title Mr. Mulder might once have held, he was little more than a common scoundrel now.
Discomfited by the turn of events and bent on getting back into her clothes before Mr. Mulder returned from wherever he had gone, she sat up and tossed back the blanket.
She was surprised to find her injured ankle was neatly wrapped in a strip of clean, linen cloth. The care Mr. Mulder had taken with the bindings was obvious, but it did little to improve her opinion of him.
He had stripped her of her clothes while she lay helpless to object -- after she had made it clear she wanted to examine her leg herself. She stood and limped across the room. Yanking her shirt from the line, she discovered it was dry. Her skirt, too, was no longer wet. Even her sodden coat showed no sign of dampness. How long had she been unconscious?
She shoved her arms into the sleeves of her shirt and hastily buttoned the front. It was torn, she discovered, exposing her cleavage. She tugged her skirt from the line, nearly knocking herself over in the process. Her ankle throbbed whenever she put weight on it. Her vision alternately blurred and cleared. She stepped into the skirt, fastened it at the waist, and smoothed it into place.
The cabin door slapped open and Mr. Mulder clomped into the room, dripping wet and carrying an armload of wood.
"You're awake," he said, looking as innocent as a parson.
"You undressed me!"
"You asked for my help, remember? 'Inihkatsimat'?"
She did remember. Vaguely. "My ankle was injured, nothing more. There was no need to strip me naked."
"You weren't naked." He shouldered past her to dump the logs next to the hearth.
"You removed my dress and my stockings. My garters, too." She snatched them up. "I would describe my condition as 'naked.'"
He squatted and poked the fire with a short branch. A spray of sparks drifted up the chimney. "Your clothes were soaking wet. Your skin was ice cold. You were shivering. And moaning." He peered up at her. "Tell me, what would you have done, Doctor Scully, had our positions been reversed?"
"As a doctor, I'm able to maintain a professional distance."
"Are you accusing me of something?"
"I specifically stated I wanted to examine my ankle myself."
"That would be quite a trick, considering you were unconscious." He fed a log into the flames. The wood snapped and hissed as the fire took hold. "I couldn't let you freeze to death, could I?"
"You might have covered me with an extra blanket and simply waited until I regained consciousness."
"Twelve...? That's impossible."
"Of course. It's more likely I'm a cad and a liar. Thank you."
"It's a medical fact that syncope generally lasts only a moment or two. A horizontal position restores blood flow to the brain and consciousness returns almost immediately."
"That may be, but according to a heliocentric hypothesis posited by Copernicus in 1514, the Earth performs a complete rotation on its fixed poles once every twenty-four hours." He hooked a thumb at the windows. "Sun set two hours ago."
Could it be night already? Fighting the haze in her brain, she tried to reconstruct her day.
She had risen at dawn...and left the fort shortly after sunrise...to go for a brief outing...in order to be back by--
"What is it?" He looked genuinely concerned. "Are you going to faint again?"
He rose and went to her, arms extended. She stepped back, but he matched her step for step, pressing closer. She continued to retreat, until she bumped into the bed and could go no further.
"I was supposed to meet my father at eight o'clock."
Mr. Mulder stood so close, his boots touched her bare toes. She could feel heat radiating from his body.
He reached up and smoothed a lock of hair from her face. "Guess you missed your appointment."
He gently traced her swollen brow with his fingertips. Her skin tingled beneath his feather-light touch. Gooseflesh spread along her arms and legs.
"You're going to have a hell of a shiner," he murmured, leaning in, his thumb brushing her cheek. His breath puffed hotly against her parted lips.
"So are you, if you don't step back."
He raised his hands, palms out, and moved away.
"You hungry?" he asked.
"No," she lied. "I want to go home."
"Yes. Take me back to Fort Culbertson. I insist."
Thunder rumbled like distant cannon fire. Rivers of rain gurgled from the roof.
"We're not going anywhere, not tonight."
"That's what you think."
She hobbled to the door and jerked it open. A gust of wind nearly knocked her off her bare feet. Raising an arm to protect her face from the pelting rain, she stepped outside. She could see nothing beyond the threshold but total blackness. She had no clue which direction to head or how close the cabin might be to the edge of a cliff.
After a moment, Mr. Mulder tugged at her elbow and drew her back inside. She shook him loose and retreated to the table, where she sat down on one of the benches, directly beneath the picture of the aliens and their unidentified celestial objects.
He closed the door. "I'll make you some dinner."
"You don't have to cook for me."
"It would be rude to eat in front of you."
He grabbed a cast iron fry pan from a hook on the wall and set it over the fire to heat. His pantry consisted of a wide shelf to the left of the stone chimney. He poked through several tins and baskets stored there.
"We have elk heart, mushrooms, wild onions, prairie turnips. You like cottonwood bark?"
"I've never had it."
"You'll love it. The inner bark is sweet. How about bull berries?"
"I haven't had those either."
"Then you're in for a treat." He groped his right thigh and frowned. "Damn."
"My knife...I traded it for...well, never mind. I've got another one here somewhere." He rummaged through a wooden box of loose utensils. "Here we go," he said, locating a thin-bladed boning knife.
The knife required sharpening and it took him a moment to find a whetstone among the clutter.
She turned her attention to the eclectic collection of items on the table, while he sharpened the knife. Fish hooks, a shaving kit, a bracelet made of...human teeth? A Smith & Beck microscope, a worn, dirty cloth doll with a hatpin stuck in its torso, a copy of "Incidents in My Life" by Daniel Dunglas Home, the spiritual medium, who claimed to be able to levitate and speak to the dead. Home had been enormously popular throughout New England in the 50s. She could not imagine taking such a person seriously, although Melissa often attended sťances, palm readings, and the like, and was forever trying to drag her along. It was smoke and mirrors, nothing more, as far as Dana was concerned, unsupported by science and logic. She stood to peer through the eyepiece of the microscope.
The stage displayed a blur of red on white. Blood on linen? She adjusted the mirror for better light and corrected the focus. Not blood. Scarlet markings on a white butterfly's wing.
"That's Phoebus Parnassian, from California." Mr. Mulder chopped onions on the shelf. "Interesting insect. During mating, the male Parnassian secretes a waxy material onto the female's abdomen, which hardens into a brown projecting ridge called the sphragis. The sphragis serves as a sort of chastity belt, blocking access to the female's genitalia--"
"Do we know each other well enough to converse about such intimate matters?"
"It's just a bug." He sliced the elk heart into thin steaks. "Besides, I've see you 'naked,' remember?"
Wanting to change the subject, Dana picked up a dark, lumpy rock that roughly resembled a hump-backed buffalo. "What's this thing?"
"An iniskim -- a Buffalo Calling Stone."
"A 'calling stone'?" She hoped it had nothing to do with secretions, genitalia, or mating practices.
"According to legend, an Indian maiden named Weasel Woman was collecting water from a river near her camp when she heard a voice calling to her from the bushes. When she went to investigate, she found a stone like that one."
"A stone spoke to her?"
"Yes. The stone explained it could help her people call a herd of buffalo to a nearby pisskan."
"Buffalo jump -- a pit used for hunting. Indians sometimes drive buffalo over a cliff into a pit, then spear and butcher them." He jabbed the air with his knife. "Weasel Woman's people were starving, so she took the iniskim back to her camp and told her spiritual leaders about its power to call buffalo. They used it and soon had plenty of meat to eat."
"You believe that story?"
"Sure, why not?"
"Because stones don't talk."
"A burning bush spoke to Moses."
"God spoke to Moses, through a burning bush."
He shrugged, as if the distinction made little difference.
"Has this stone ever talked to you?" she asked, annoyed.
"Not yet. Maybe it'll talk to you. Ask it a question."
"Are you mocking me, Mr. Mulder?"
"Not at all. 'There are here mysteries--'"
"I doubt Doctor Pasteur was referring to talking rocks when he said that."
"The world is full of unexplained phenomena, Doctor Scully."
"I'm a scientist. I trust empirical data gathered through experiment and observation."
"You saw God speaking to Moses through a burning bush?"
"Now you do mock me, sir."
He dropped a dollop of lard into the hot pan, then dumped in a handful of onions, turnip, and mushrooms. The vegetables sizzled and spat. "You trust the 'Scientific American,' don't you?" He gave the food a stir with a wooden spoon.
"Well, in 1846 they reported this: 'A correspondent from Loweville, New York, states that on November 11 the most remarkable meteor ever seen there made its appearance. It appeared larger than the sun and illumined the hemisphere nearly as light as day. It was in sight nearly five minutes, and finally fell in a field in the vicinity. A large company of the citizens immediately repaired to the spot and found a body of fetid jelly, four feet in diameter.' Do you know what it was?"
"I have no idea. What was it?"
He layered the steaks on top of the vegetables and added the berries. "I don't know. No one does. That's my point."
The food cooked for a few minutes more, releasing a mouth-watering aroma. She watched like a half-starved scavenger as he portioned it out onto two tin plates.
"Mind clearing a spot on the table?" he asked, carrying the plates across the room.
Ravenously hungry, she did as he asked, shoving aside the microscope, human teeth, and Home's autobiography.
"Dig in," he said, setting the food in front of her.
She snatched the fork from his hand even before he could pass it to her. He chuckled and took a seat on the opposite bench.
She practically fell upon the food, shoving forkful after forkful into her mouth, almost faster than she could chew and swallow. A wonderful mix of flavors and textures crossed her tongue: tart, juicy berries, soft, bitter turnip, an earthy taste of mushrooms, the bite of onion. Best of all, however, was the rich savor of elk heart. She had never tasted anything so delicious in her life and it was all she could do not to groan with pleasure.
"Careful you don't choke."
She looked up to find Mr. Mulder watching her. He appeared both amazed and amused by her hearty appetite.
"I'm hungry," she said in her defense. "I haven't eaten since yesterday."
Reminded of her last meal -- the disastrous dinner that had led to the even more disastrous walk on the pier -- she slowed her pace. She did not want to spill food or drop a fork as she had done the previous night. Not that a little spilled food would damage Mr. Mulder's table in any way. The surface was spotted with a variety of colorful, unidentifiable stains.
"I understand you're a friend of Lieutenant Skinner," she ventured, hoping to engage him in polite conversation, while perhaps learning more about the man her father wanted her to marry.
"I wouldn't call us friends, exactly. Not any more."
"You had a falling out?"
He jabbed a chunk of meat with his fork. "More like a difference of opinion."
"I don't respect his beliefs and he doesn't respect mine."
"But you were friends once?"
"Years ago." He took a bite of food. Still chewing, he asked, "You going to marry him?"
"How did you know about that?"
"Why else would a pretty, educated doctor come to live in a sparsely populated, backwoods place like Flatwillow?"
"My family is here."
He nodded. "Do you and Walter know each other well?"
"Well enough. We've kissed," she blurted without meaning to.
He looked at her in surprise. She thought she detected disapproval, or maybe disappointment, in his rounded eyes.
"It's none of my business," he said, rising. He reached for her plate. "You finished?"
"Yes, thank you. It was delicious."
"I'll make someone a good wife one day." He carried the dirty dishes outside and set them on the ground so they sat directly beneath the edge of the overhanging roof. Rain water splashed down onto them. Leaving them there, he stepped back inside and closed the door.
"Do you always wash dishes that way?" she asked.
"Only when it rains."
She leaned back against the log wall, belly full, appetite sated. She began to feel drowsy as she watched him pick up. A combination of high altitude and her head wound were apparently taking their toll; she could barely keep her eyes open. Her head nodded. She shifted, fighting to stay awake.
"You want to go to bed?" he asked.
"Bed. It's a piece of furniture. You sleep on it."
She eyed it suspiciously. "No, thank you."
"It'll be a long night, sitting on that bench." He pulled his shirttails free from his trousers. She glimpsed a bit of golden flesh and muscled torso. Her gaze lingered, even after his wrinkled shirt fell back into place.
He pointed to the bed. "You mind if I...?"
"Why should I? It's your...your...piece of furniture. Do as you please."
He lay down and stretched out on his back. Peering at her through half-closed eyes, he patted the mattress beside him. "If you change your mind..."
"I'll be fine right here."
"Suit yourself." He yawned and, almost as an afterthought, toed off his boots. "Don't forget to blow out the lantern."
* * *
Rain poured from the brim of Skinner's hat each time he tilted his head to look up Ptarmigan Hill's steep switchback. Charlie Scully rode behind him. Both men carried lanterns, although the feeble lamplight did little to pierce the dark and illuminate their path.
Earlier in the day, Skinner and Captain Scully had questioned the two guards at Culbertson's gate. The men had been unable to agree upon which direction Miss Scully had gone, so Captain Scully split his party into four teams and sent each in a different direction. One team headed north to the OokŠŠn River. The second headed south to Aspen Meadow. A third went east across the plains toward Kingsbury Basin. Skinner led a fourth group west into the mountains, although Bill Jr. had argued the terrain was too rough for a woman, even for Dana. Cap agreed and refused to waste his best trackers on such slim odds. He paired Charlie with Skinner's team.
"He believes we're on a fool's errand," Charlie muttered. "And since he has always considered me a fool, it's a perfect match."
They spent the day searching several likely trails, but heavy rains made tracking nearly impossible and they found nothing. At sunset, Skinner ordered his team back to the fort. The men were clearly relieved to be released from duty. Charlie, on the other hand, opted to keep searching.
"It's possible someone already found her or she returned to Culbertson on her own hours ago," Skinner told him.
"Is that what you really think?"
Skinner was not the world's best tracker, but he trusted his instincts and his gut was telling him Miss Scully was still out here somewhere, lost or hurt. Or worse.
"There's one more trail I'd like to check." It ran south along Nine Pipe Ridge from Buffalo Jump to Fox Mulder's cabin. Skinner had traveled it recently, to deliver ammo and an Enfield to a designated drop-off at Buffalo Jump. Of course, he told Charlie nothing about this. Supplying guns to the Indians, through Mulder, would mean a court-martial and hanging for treason. "There's a connecting trail on Ptarmigan Hill."
An hour later, as they climbed the hill, Charlie looked less enthusiastic. "I'm beginning to think Bill was right. This is pretty rough terrain for a woman."
"Your sister didnít strike me as the sort to be easily discouraged."
"True enough. She's bolder than most women. Much to Fatherís dismay." Charlieís wet cloak flapped in the wind. "Dana prides herself on her independent spirit. She follows her own heart and mind even when it gets her into trouble, in case you hadnít noticed."
He had noticed, not that he blamed her for what had happened. The kiss had been his fault entirely. He marveled that Charlie had not mentioned it even once during their long day together. This even tempered Scully was either focused on finding his sister or was far more forgiving than his older brother.
Something fluttered on a fallen snag ahead. Skinner rose up in his saddle and held his light high. "What's that?"
"I think...it's a woman's hat!"
Both men dismounted and hurried to the tree. Skinner plucked the hat from the tree branch and smoothed its bedraggled wet feathers. "Is it hers?"
Charlie stood by his side, breathing hard. "Yes. I'm certain. She wore it the day we left St. Louis."
"There's blood on it."
Charlie frantically swung his lantern about, searching for more clues. "Did her horse lose its footing?"
"Spooked, most likely." Skinner pointed to a burnt, broken tree. "Lightning strike."
"Then...where is she? Dana? Dana!" Charlie called. "Dana where are you?"
His shouts were lost in the crash of wind and rain.
Shivering, Skinner hiked higher up the trail, lantern held at arm's length, eyes to the ground. "Here! I found something!" he yelled as he picked up a woman's riding boot. Mud and water poured from it when he turned it upside down. "She can't have gone far." Not wearing only one shoe.
The light from his lantern reflected off something smooth and white in the mud. Skinner bent to retrieve it. A bear claw necklace with a broken leather strap.
"My God, is that an Indian necklace?" Charlie asked, standing at his elbow. "She's been taken hostage. What will they do to her? Will they kill her?"
Skinner shook his head. "Don't worry, she's safe."
"How can you say that?"
"She's not with the Indians. She's with Fox Mulder. This belongs to him."
"You're sure? Maybe it just looks like his."
"It's his." Skinner held the necklace up to Charlie's light. A little wooden soldier dangled from its midpoint. "I carved that after we defeated the Mexicans in the Battle of Chapultepec in '47. I gave it to him when he left the army for good."
"How do you know he didn't trade it to someone else? Another trapper or one of his Indian friends?"
"He wouldn't trade it."
Palming the necklace, Skinner returned to his horse. He pulled himself wearily into the saddle and headed downhill.
"You're leaving?" Charlie continued to stand in the pouring rain.
"We can come back in the morning."
"The morning? Have you lost your mind?"
"Get on your horse, Mr. Scully. Your sister is safe."
"But what of her virtue?"
"Fox Mulder might be eccentric, maybe even insane, but he won't harm her."
"I hope you plan to tell Father that Dana is spending the night with 'Crazy Fox' Mulder," Charlie shouted to Skinner's back, "because I sure as hell don't want to."
* * *
For the better part of an hour, Mulder lay on his bed and pretended to be asleep. In truth, he was listening to Miss Scully fidget as she tried to find a comfortable position on the bench across the room.
At one point, she rose, lit the lantern, and slipped outside. Concerned, he got up to watch her through the window. Her lamplight receded in the dark as she followed a well-worn path to the privy. Not wanting to embarrass her when she returned, he lay back down on the bed and faced away from the door.
She reentered the cabin as silently as she had left and resumed her seat on the bench. The light went off. A few minutes later, her breathing became slow and even. A soft snore signaled she had managed to doze off in spite of the uncomfortable arrangements. He rose again and quietly crossed the room.
Chin to her chest, she slept soundly. He slipped one arm behind her back and the other beneath her knees, and lifted her from the bench. She stirred as he held her, reflexively reaching round his neck and nuzzling his chest. Eyes closed, she released an audible, contented sigh into his open collar. The heat of her breath warmed him from breastbone to bare toes.
He carried her to the bed, but paused before setting her down. She looked peaceful, cradled in his arms. And beautiful. Russet lashes on pink cheeks. Small, pale hands. Softly mounded breasts. Several tendrils of her wild, curling red hair wafted in the fireís warm draft and tickled his neck.
A shame she was spoken for. By Skinner, no less. Anyone else and he might throw his hat into the ring. Hell, he was tempted to do so anyway.
The image of her stripped down to her chemise and corset rose unbidden in his mind. He had removed her clothes to help her, exactly as he had said. But to say he had not looked -- and appreciated her feminine attributes -- would be a lie. His intentions had been honorable; his attraction and physical reaction, perhaps not so much.
He watched her chest rise and fall and pictured her not as she was right now, but topless, like the woman in Frohike's stereoscopic slide.
Set her down and walk away, he told himself, and did just that. He eased her onto the bed and drew the blanket up over her. Again she stirred, but did not wake up. It took all his willpower not to climb in beside her, wrap his arms around her, and curve his body to hers.
Instead, he lowered himself to the floor, stretched out on his back, and tried not to think of her sleeping just an armís length away.
Continued in Chapter 8
THE MOUNTAIN MAN