Mulder clutched his right side as he steered Ponoká out of the woods into the field beside his cabin. Sisomm ran to greet him, tail wagging.
"Nice to know somebody's glad to see me." He stopped the horse. Easing a leg over Ponoká's back, he slid from the saddle to the ground.
Pain arrowed his ribs and nearly buckled his knees. Suppressing a groan, he shuffled to the stream to wash his injuries. Unsaddling the horse would have to wait. Ponoká wandered off to a patch of tall grass to graze.
It had been years since Mulder last endured a beating without lifting a finger in his own defense. The hand raised against him that time had been his father's. But boxed ears and a cracked molar seemed insignificant given the offense. It had been his responsibility to watch Samantha, keep her safe while his parents were out, but he failed to protect her. Regret churned his gut as violently now as the day she disappeared.
He drew his pistol from its holster and placed it on the flat stone beside the stream where he usually set his shaving kit and soap. Fully dressed, he waded in and lowered himself into the pool beneath the falls. Icy water poured over his scalp and shoulders, numbing his bruised flesh and helping cool his temper.
Unfortunately, it did nothing to cool his interest in Dana Scully.
Her physical injuries -- the black eye, the twisted ankle -- were not his doing and on that count Bill Scully's wrath was unwarranted. However, Mulder had placed her in his bed, then stripped her of her dress and stockings while she lay unconscious. In his mind, he then laid with her all night, without promise of marriage or declaration of love. He was no gentleman in his fantasies. And it was for that he deserved a punch in the jaw.
Which was precisely why he had not fought Bill Scully. He may loathe the man's politics, but he completely understood his fraternal instincts. Mulder would have reacted the same way, given similar circumstances. It was a brother's duty to protect his sister against all threats.
So Mulder took his licks, hoping with each painful blow that his yearning for Dana Scully might diminish. Trouble was, it didn't. Common sense, and his throbbing skull, said to let her go, forget about her. But his body and, strangely, his heart still felt a keen attraction. Maybe more so now than before he'd gotten his ass kicked. Which made no sense, but could explain why he'd foolishly told her he'd "be around."
Idiot. It had been a pathetic show of defiance and bravado, he realized now, intended to let Bill -- and Skinner -- know that he had no intention of being run off, although only a week ago, before he ever met the diminutive Doctor Scully, he was perfectly content to live alone in the hills, as far from civilization as he could crawl.
And now? He had an inexplicable urge to move to town, buy a house, and raise a horde of red-haired children.
He sank beneath the stream's surface until the water covered his head. His long hair floated veil-like in the current. Blood curled in ribbons from his split lip.
As pretty as she was, it was Dana Scully's intellect he found most appealing, he thought as he watched blood-tinted bubbles sift from his nose. Educated and straightforward, she was willing to speak her mind, form her own opinions. Opinions that ran counter to his for the most part, but that was all right; he liked being challenged.
Not that it mattered what he liked or didn't like. She was Skinner's intended, which made her unavailable. End of story.
Chilled to the marrow and needing air, he rose up with a gasp. Sisomm came running at the sound and splashed into the stream.
"Whoa, slow down!" Mulder said too late. Sisomm was on him, weighting him down and licking his face. "I like you, too, but your claws are sharp. Ow! That's enough!"
The dog stopped his lapping, tilted his head, and stared at Mulder.
"I don't look that bad, do I?" Mulder nudged him away and rose on unsteady legs. Water drained off him. "You should see the other guy."
Sisomm whined and nosed Mulder's unscathed knuckles.
"Haven't you ever read Shakespeare? 'The better part of valor,' and all that." He ruffled the dog's fur. "Point out my cowardice again and you'll find yourself pulling a travois for the Cree."
He retrieved his gun from the rock and headed to the cabin. Sisomm trotted after him.
Inside, Mulder peeled off his vest and let it drop to the floor with a wet plop. He examined his right side. A bruise the size of his palm blackened the skin there. He gently prodded each rib, testing for breaks. They ached like a son of a bitch, but the bones seemed intact.
He unbuckled and removed his gun belt and set it, along with his pistol, on the table, then sank down onto one of the benches. Tugging off his boots took more effort than he expected. Wincing, he upended both and drained them of water. Sisomm came over to lap at the puddle.
"Drink up." He let the boots thud to the floor. "That's what I plan to do, as soon as I can remember where I put that jug of Frohike's homebrew."
He yanked off his soaked wool socks, bunched them together, and wrung them out, adding more water to the floor, then tossed them aimlessly across the room. Standing up sent a fresh bolt of pain to his ribs. He tried to ignore it as he unfastened and stripped off his trousers. These he left lying on the floor, too, and walked naked to the nightstand. He picked up his shaving mirror to inspect his battered face.
His lower lip was split and swollen, and still seeped blood. Dana Scully was right -- it could have used a stitch. Bruises mottled his jaw. Cuts and scrapes crisscrossed his left cheek and brow. Blood leaked from one nostril, but luckily his nose had escaped a direct hit, so remained unbroken.
A lump on the back of his skull smarted when he probed it. It felt huge -- bigger than the duck egg he had eaten for breakfast -- but no matter how he turned his head or held the mirror, he could not see it. Frustrated, he quit trying and tossed the mirror onto the bed.
It landed next to Dana Scully's stockings and garters. He plucked one garter from the crumpled blankets, remembering how he had slipped it from her leg, drew her stocking down, coveted the curve of her knee and swell of her thigh. More than anything, he had wanted to peek beneath her lace-trimmed bloomers--
God above, Bill Scully had every right to punch him.
He gathered up the other garter and the stockings, intending to throw them in the fire. Burn 'em, he told himself. Forget Dana Scully ever existed.
Sound advice, but he opened the trunk at the foot of his bed instead, and tucked her things beneath his favorite pair of fringed leggings.
"Out of sight, out of mind, right?" he asked Sisomm.
Sisomm dragged a stick of kindling from the hearth and dropped it at Mulder's bare feet, begging for a game of fetch.
"Not now, boy. As much as I'd like to stay and play -- or drink myself into a stupor -- I've got a couple of errands to run."
The gunpowder and munitions caps The Eye had left at Buffalo Jump were still in his saddlebag. Along with the Jefferson Peace Medal he had promised Few Tails he would deliver to Captain Scully. He would visit Kicking Horse first, drop off the ammo, then continue on to the fort.
The prospect of running into Dana Scully again prompted him to grab a clean shirt and trousers from the wardrobe. He dressed quickly, then combed his hair and tied it back with a rawhide lace. He dug out a pair of dry boots from beneath his bed. They were covered with road dust and wood ash, so he buffed the toes with his shirtsleeve before putting them on. Should he shave, too?
No, it would be hell scraping a razor over his bruised jaw. He'd end up looking worse than he did now. He gathered his gun belt from the table and strapped it on. Reaching for his pistol, he spotted two saloon tokens beside his voodoo doll.
"How did those get...?" He glanced at Sisomm. "You know anything about this?"
The dog yawned.
Mulder smiled. He believed in fate. The tokens would buy him a bath -- a real bath -- and a haircut. He palmed the coins.
"Don't wait up," he called over his shoulder and headed out the door. "I may be gone awhile."
* * *
"I don't need an escort." Dana brushed aside Lieutenant Skinner's offer to accompany her into her parents' house. "From anyone." She glared at her brothers.
Charlie ignored her scowl and took her elbow. "Dana, please don't be angry. What were we to think?" He guided her up the steps to their father's front door.
"You could have trusted me."
"It wasn't you we didn't trust."
"You had no reason to doubt Mr. Mulder's motives. Besides, I can take care of myself. I'm not a child."
"I understand that. But Bill and I love you, Dana. You can't expect us to stop worrying about you."
"I expect you treat me like an adult." She shook free of his hand and turned to look back at the others. "That goes for all of you."
Bill stood beside his horse, fists clenched, face purple with unspent fury. Skinner stared not at her, but at some distant, unseen place beyond the fort's stockade fence. His customarily spotless uniform was mud-spattered and dusty. He seemed both miserable and humiliated, and she was unsure if his emotions were directed inward at himself or outward at her. Of one thing she was certain: he wished to be anywhere but here.
She opened the front door and found Cap and Maggie waiting just inside.
"I suppose you intend to chastise me, too," she said, plowing past them to the stairs.
Her father called out her name, concern tempering his shout, but Dana ignored him and went straight to her room to change out of her torn, filthy clothes. She was going to the infirmary to start work there as soon as she washed up, and would not be talked out of it.
The first garment she removed was Mr. Mulder's shirt, which had concealed the worst damage to her own clothes. Imagine Bill's reaction if he had caught sight of her chemisette in tatters, corset and bare flesh exposed. Mr. Mulder might very well be lying dead at the bottom of Nine Pipe Ridge right now, rather than nursing his wounds back at his cabin.
She wondered again how badly he was hurt. Were his ribs broken? His skull fractured? At a minimum, he needed stitches to close the cut on his lip. Without them, there would be a scar.
A fine thank you he had received for the help he provided. He must regret their chance meeting altogether. And if not for his parting words, she would think he was glad to be rid of her.
"I'll be around," he had said. His promise filled her with hope. She lifted his shirt to her nose and, once again, breathed in his scent, which still lingered in the fabric. It brought a clear picture of him to her mind, not as he looked when they last parted, but on his horse beside the Missouri River, wearing buckskin and feathers, sitting tall in his saddle, eyes focused on her. A pleasant shiver ran through her at the memory.
Time to stop daydreaming like a schoolgirl and get down to business. She folded his shirt and tucked it away in the bottom of her wardrobe, then stripped to her corset and pantaloons. She filled the washbasin from the pitcher. Working up a lather of soap, she scrubbed the last traces of grime and blood from her skin.
It wasn't until she unrolled a pair of clean stockings that she remembered she had left her dirty, torn ones at the cabin, along with her garters. It was no real loss. The stockings were so full of holes that they were practically worthless. And she was hopeless at darning.
She put on the fresh stockings, then slipped a plain, dark brown day dress over her head. She laid out her doctor's smock on the bed along with a simple, pointed brim bonnet in shirred silk. She would go without gloves, convention be damned. They were impractical when examining patients or performing surgery.
Her hair was a mess. She removed the lacing she had stolen from Mr. Mulder’s snowshoe and unknotted her long braid. Ten minutes of vigorous brushing brought back her hair's glossy sheen. She parted it straight down the middle, taking care that no strays created a crooked appearance, then smoothed the sides as best she could. With practiced hands, she twisted a conservative roll at the back of her neck and pinned it firmly in place with combs. Slipping into her smock, she was ready at last.
Bonnet in hand, she went downstairs to the front hall. Her father and brothers were gone, but her mother was waiting for her there, blocking the door.
"Mother, let me pass, please."
"You should be in bed, sweetheart."
"I slept quite soundly last night, thank you."
"Your family didn't sleep a wink. We were awake worrying about you. Or don't you care about that?"
"Of course I care," she said, meaning it. "But you had no reason to be concerned."
"You're my daughter," she said, as if that explained everything.
"Do you worry about your sons the way you worry about me?"
They both knew this was not the case. The boys came and went as they pleased, no questions asked. No one cared that Charlie stayed out all night, nor did they fret over Bill's safety, although both men were often gone for days at a time. It was unfair.
Dana put on her bonnet and tied the ribbons beneath her chin.
"Please step aside, Mother."
Tears filled Maggie's eyes. "Tell me where you're going."
"I don't understand..." Maggie looked genuinely perplexed.
"I'm sure you don't."
"You've just been through a terrible ordeal."
"It wasn't all bad, Mother."
In fact, some moments had been almost pleasant. Like riding on Ponoká, Mr. Mulder's bare chest pressed against her back, his muscled arm tight around her waist.
Pushing past her mother, Dana opened the door and stepped out onto the porch. Maggie followed her.
"Don't you at least want some breakfast, dear?" she asked.
"I've already eaten, thank you." Dana started to walk away, then changed her mind, turned and hugged her mother. "I'm fine," she murmured against Maggie's soft cheek. "Honestly."
Maggie clung to her. "I love you, sweetheart. You're my baby. I just want you safe."
"I know and I am. I love you, too, Mom. But you have to let me grow up. Can you do that?" Dana pulled back to look into her mother's worried eyes. "Please."
"That's all I'm asking." She released her mother. "I'll be back in time for dinner."
Her mother nodded, so Dana left her standing there on the front step, biting her lip and wringing her hands.
The Fort Culbertson Infirmary was located across the green from The Picayune. A dwarfish man with spectacles and muttonchop side-whiskers waved to her through his dusty window as she drew near. He was flanked by two other men: a bearded gentleman wearing a checked sack suit and a scruffier sort with long blond hair. The first man pointed to his eye and then at her, his grizzled brows raised in alarm. She granted him a tiny smile to acknowledge his concern for her injury, then continued on.
Her bruises drew stares from the enlisted men, too, as they practiced drills on the parade ground. Twice their sergeant had to scold them for lack of attention. She was relieved when she finally entered the infirmary, away from prying eyes.
The infirmary's main room was approximately twenty feet square, dimly lit, and its plank floor was in need of a good scrubbing. There were eight cots arranged along the walls. Only one was currently occupied by a patient, a miserable looking man with a bandage slung beneath his chin and knotted atop his crown, giving the impression of rabbit ears. The room smelled of alcohol, sweat, and dirty linens. Most people would recoil from the foul odor, but to Dana it felt like a homecoming. This was precisely where she belonged.
She straightened her smock and went to the sick man. She guessed his age to be around fifty. Sparse hair fuzzed his otherwise bald scalp, giving him the appearance of a dandelion gone to seed. He had a bulbous nose, double chin stubbled with gray, and lips shaped like Cupid's bow. Most prominent, however, were his overly swollen cheeks.
"How are you feeling?" She touched the back of her hand to his brow. His skin burned with fever.
"Better than you, miss, by the looks of it." He eyeballed her bruised face. Two missing incisors gave his speech a slight lisp.
"I look worse than I feel," she assured him. "I'm Doctor Scully, by the way. The fort's new physician."
"Didn't realize we was gettin' a new doc. 'Specially not such a purty one, shiner aside."
"What's your name, soldier?" She probed his neck. "Does this hurt?"
"Ow! Yes. Name's Phillips, miss. Sergeant Phillips. You a real doctor?"
"Yes, I'm a real doctor. I graduated from Hobart College in New York."
"They let women into colleges back east?"
"They do. Have you been experiencing chills, headache, loss of appetite, fatigue?"
"Yes, miss. All them things. Can I have some whiskey? It'd make me feel a whole lot better." He grinned, exposing the gap in his teeth.
"We'll see. Let's finish your examination first."
"I got mumps. Least-wise, that's what the corporal says."
"Beckett. He's back there in the office." The sergeant nodded toward a side door.
Odd that Cap had not mentioned the name, or the fact that the fort already had a doctor. "Is Corporal Beckett a physician?"
"He worked the ambulance corps in Antietam, under Letterman. Was a stretcher-bearer mostly, but said he sometimes set bones and the like."
"I see." It surprised her how relieved she was to learn this Corporal Beckett was not a bona fide doctor. "Are you able to keep food down? Have you experienced any seizures?"
"I ain't throwed up. No spells neither, that I know of."
Good, the lack of these more serious symptoms indicated there was no brain fever.
"How about orchitis?" she asked.
"Dunno who that is, Doc."
"Not who. What." Nearly a fourth of all men who developed mumps experienced orchitis -- painful inflammation of the testicles. "I need to check you for swelling, Sergeant Phillips."
"Ain't it obvious I got that?" He pointed a pudgy finger at the bandage cradling his chin.
"Yes, but I need to examine the parts I can't see."
"Sorry, Doc, I don't care what fancy school you went to -- you ain't gonna slice me open." He looked appalled.
"I'm not talking about surgery, Sergeant. I need to examine your testicles."
"Say again? You wanna look at my privates?"
"Yes. Actually, I'll need to touch them."
His expression of horror evaporated. "Well, you do that and I guarantee you'll encounter some swellin'." He winked at her.
"You have a serious condition, Sergeant." She folded back his blanket. "The outcome of mumps is unpredictable in adult men. It can sometimes lead to testicular atrophy and sterility."
"What's that you say?"
"Shrinking of the testicles and the inability to father children." She probed his groin through his longjohns for enlarged lymph nodes. Cupping his scrotum, she gave a gentle squeeze. "Does this hurt?"
"I wouldn't describe it as hurtin', zactly." He grinned. "Do I got 'em? Them orchid things?"
"Orchitis. No, Sergeant, the news is good. Your mumps have not spread." She drew the blanket back over him.
"That's a relief. Not that I was plannin' to have any more young'uns -- I already got eleven and a couple of grandkids, too. But that part about shrinkin' didn't sound too good."
"Not to worry. You're fine. I want you to gargle with warm salt water twice a day, eat only soft foods, and take extra fluids. Avoid fruit, tomatoes, and other acidic foods and drinks, since these stimulate the salivary glands."
"That a bad thing?"
"It can be painful, yes." She poured him a glass of water from a pitcher on the stand beside his cot. "No milk or cheese, as they can be difficult to digest."
"What *can* I eat?"
"Porridge, boiled potatoes, broth." She handed him the glass. "Your symptoms should disappear in a few days. Most patients recover completely with no aftereffects."
"That's good news, Doc." He drank down the water and handed her back the empty glass. "Now can I have some whiskey?"
"With your lunch."
"When's that gonna be?"
"Soon, I promise."
"Thank you, miss, er, I mean Doc. For everythin'." He smiled broadly, plumping his cheeks even more. "This's been the best day I've had since joinin' the army!"
Assured he was comfortable, she took her leave. She was eager to explore the rest of the infirmary, and meet Corporal Beckett, the stretcher-bearer turned "doctor."
A small surgery was located just off the main ward. An operating table occupied the center of the room. Shelves containing bandages, needles, silk thread for ligatures, and surgical instruments lined one wall. A quick inventory of the instruments revealed amputating saws, bone nippers, knives, syringes, forceps, probangs, and catheters. She was pleased to find a fully stocked Snowden & Brother surgery kit, too, practically new. Inside the kit were the usual scalpels, scissors, bullet probes, and tourniquets.
A glass-fronted medicine cabinet in one corner held bottles containing various powders and liquids. The labels listed standard remedies: opium, morphine, Dover's powder, quinine, rhubarb, Rochelle salts, castor oil, sugar of lead, tannin, sulphate of copper, sulphate of zinc, camphor, syrup of squills, alcohol, whiskey, brandy, port wine, and sherry.
She was impressed. She had not expected the fort's infirmary to be so well provisioned.
Satisfied, she moved on to inspect the third and final room, her office.
She opened the door to find Corporal Beckett sitting with his feet propped up on the desk, reading a textbook.
"Pathology and Treatment of Venereal Diseases by Freeman J. Bumstead, M.D.," she read from the cover. "Do you treat many sexual diseases here at the fort, Corporal?"
"Do you have one?" He lowered the book to look at her. He was a pasty-skinned man in his mid-thirties, with boney features, a bristly mustache, and jet black hair. "You don't dress like the other girls."
"Les nymphes de la prairie."
"That's because I don't work in a brothel, Corporal. And if I may speak frankly, you don't dress like the other soldiers."
He wore his uniform frock coat with the standing collar turned down, like a lapel coat. His vest was unbuttoned, exposing the pin tucks of his pleated shirt front. Its detached collar lay on the desk, next to his cravat and a copy of "Lectures on Venereal Diseases" by William Hammond, Surgeon General of the U.S. Army.
He caught her staring at the book. "I'm sometimes called upon to treat the citizenry of Flatwillow."
"The women at the saloon."
"Yes, I examine them, on occasion. Free of charge, courtesy of the United States government."
"How generous of you."
"Syphilis is a serious threat. An outbreak among the soldiers could prove disastrous."
"War is a dangerous occupation."
"Indeed. I must be vigilant. The Army is at risk."
"Clearly, you're carrying out your patriotic duty."
"Yes. Exactly so." He gave a quick nod and slid his feet from the desk to the floor. He slapped the book with his palm. "It's imperative we stop the threat at its source."
"Specifically, the soiled doves who work there."
"The women are to blame?"
"Corporal, how do you imagine those women came to be infected with the disease in the first place?"
"Loose morals, obviously." Pursing his lips, he arranged the textbooks square to the edge of the desk.
"What are your credentials, Corporal Beckett? As a medical man, I mean."
"Letterman Ambulance Plan, miss, Army of the Potomac."
"You collected wounded from the field, brought them to the dressing station, then took them to the field hospital."
"That and more."
"Have you had any formal medical training?"
"At a school? No. Didn't need to. I received adequate training through experience. Treated hundreds of wounded soldiers. It taught me all I know." He smiled at her. "Is there something I can do for you, Miss...?"
"Forgive me, I haven't introduced myself. I'm Doctor Scully, the fort's new physician."
"Doctor Scul--?" His eyes widened. "You wouldn't be related to the captain, would you, miss?"
"As a matter fact, he's my father."
"And Lieutenant Scully--"
"Is my older brother. Yes."
Corporal Beckett's Adam's apple bobbed above his collarless shirt. He rose from the chair and quickly fastened the top button of his vest, leaving the waist gaping. "I beg your pardon, Miss Scully."
"Yes, right," -- he gave a slight bow -- "Doctor Scully."
"May I sit at my desk?" she asked.
"Of course." He stepped aside and gestured toward the chair.
She brushed past him and took a seat.
"You can leave now, Corporal," she said when he continued to stare at her. "But be back at 6:00 p.m."
"Yes, you're on night duty until further notice."
"If you need to hear those orders from Captain Scully himself, I can arrange it."
"No, that won't be necessary." He started to salute, then realized his mistake and exited the room without further comment.
Alone, she leaned back and took a deep breath. This was her office. Her chair. Her bookshelves, medical texts, and logbook. Daniel Waterston would be proud of her, even if her family was not. She was a practicing physician in a real hospital. Her dream had come true, at last.
As silly as it seemed, the desk pleased her most. It was old and small, but it was hers. She caressed its scratched mahogany surface, then sorted through the contents of each drawer. "A Practical Treatise on Factures and Dislocations" by Frank Hamilton, M. D.; "Handbook for the Military Surgeon" by Charles Tripler and George Blackman; "Anatomy of the Arteries of the Human Body" by John H. Power. Great physicians all.
Smiling, she opened the logbook to review the patient records. Her smile quickly faded. Names and dates went back two years, but the entries contained so little information they filled fewer than two dozen pages. Most illnesses and injuries were described in amateurish terms, with no reference to cause or result: rash on chest; cut on arm; fever. The treatments, when listed, sounded inadequate or downright harmful.
"Sloppy work, Corporal Beckett," she murmured, dipping a quill into the inkwell. He would receive a stern lecture for his lackadaisical methods. Putting pen to paper, she wrote a thorough account of Sergeant Phillips' condition in the log.
The day passed quickly, almost without her notice. She fed Sergeant Phillips, allowed him a small dose of whiskey, and periodically checked on him. While he dozed, she worked in the back rooms, inventorying and organizing supplies, straightening shelves, and dusting off the small library of books. She felt most at home in the surgery and spent several hours there sorting through the medicines and polishing instruments.
Around 5:30, the sound of boot heels announced a visitor in the ward. A man spoke in a low voice to the sick sergeant. She put down her cleaning rag, smoothed her smock, and went to investigate.
"You're early Corporal-- Oh. It's you."
Walter Skinner, not Corporal Beckett, stood beside the sergeant's bed. He cut a dashing figure in his impeccable uniform, gleaming officer's saber, and crimson sash. He had changed out of his muddy coat and trousers. Polished his boots. Shaved his face and even trimmed his mustache.
"Doctor Scully." He removed his hat.
"Lieutenant." She had not expected to see him so soon after their argument and felt unprepared for an encounter. Especially here, in front of the sergeant, who watched them with obvious curiosity.
Skinner appeared equally uncomfortable. "May we go somewhere to talk?" he asked.
"Corporal Beckett doesn't return until 6:00. I can't..." She glanced at the sergeant.
"Of course," Skinner said. "I'll just wait here until you're free to go then."
"Yes. Is there a problem?"
"The sergeant needs his rest."
"I ain't tired, doc. Been sleepin' most of the afternoon."
"You're more tired than you know."
"I'm wide awake. Feelin' real dandy. You need to check me fer orchids again?"
"No." She turned to Skinner. "I must insist you leave, Lieutenant."
He nodded and fitted his hat to his head. "In that case, I'll be back at 6:00. I have something I want to show you."
Her stomach knotted for no logical reason and her heart began to thud foolishly. "I-I'll see you then."
* * *
Kicking Horse was chief to a band of two-hundred Blackfoot summering along the banks of Miin Creek. He became chief the way most did, by demonstrating leadership in ceremonies and success in battle. In order to procure a steady supply of food and ensure the safety of his people, he regularly fought the Cree to the north and, when forced, the whites to the south.
He was a wealthy man, as Indians went. At sixty years of age, he owned many horses and had three wives, four daughters, six sons, and more than a dozen grandchildren. He enjoyed life's simple pleasures, like a fine pipe, a warm campfire, a hearty meal, and a good joke. He was a convincing orator and an accomplished spinner of tales. He claimed to have seen the Two Faces of Truth, for which Mulder was envious. Intelligent, sharp witted, and resilient, Kicking Horse had proved himself time and again to be an admirable provider and a loyal friend, generous to kin and members of his tribe.
The chief welcomed Mulder cheerfully whenever he visited, inviting him to spend the night in his lodge and share both pipe and food. His kindness was due in part to his gregarious nature, but also because Mulder supplied him with information about the increasing influx of whites, and weapons to help defend against the Cree and soldiers from the fort. More than that, however, he seemed to genuinely like Mulder. And Mulder liked him in return.
"I wish I had more for you." Mulder unloaded the small keg of gunpowder and tin of munitions caps from his saddlebags.
"I am grateful for whatever you bring, Ohkó." Kicking Horse directed Mulder into his tepee. Inside, he stored the items. "Sit. Smoke with me. My daughters will prepare us something to eat."
In short order, Little Bird and Spotted Rabbit arrived with roasted venison, service berries, and honey.
"My daughters grow prettier with each sunrise, do they not?" Kicking Horse beamed with pride as the young women served the food.
The chief was continually trying to interest Mulder in one or both of his youngest girls, daughters by his third wife. Little Bird and Spotted Rabbit were approaching marriageable age and Kicking Horse was eager to find them suitable husbands.
Spotted Rabbit's cheeks dimpled when she smiled. Her hand grazed Mulder's as she passed him a basket of frybread. Her skin was soft and her dark eyes shone.
Little Bird was shier than her older sister, but no less lovely. She wore a sleeveless tunic that showed off smooth shoulders and shapely arms. When she leaned close to fill Mulder's plate with tanka-me-a-lo, buffalo stew, he caught a whiff of her sweetgrass necklace and the bear's grease she combed into her hair to make it shine.
"They're both very beautiful," Mulder agreed with the chief.
Kicking Horse nodded, then pointed to Mulder's split lip. "Not like you. You are not looking so well."
"I, uh, ran into a door."
"I think you ran into trouble. Did the soldiers from the fort do this?"
"Yes, but not for the reasons you might think."
"Do not risk yourself on our behalf, Ohkó. I have grown fond of you."
Spotted Rabbit heaped more meat onto Mulder's plate.
"Whoa, that's enough," he objected.
Kicking Horse elbowed Mulder. "It seems my daughter has grown fond of you, too."
The women flirted with Mulder throughout the meal. They competed with each other to be the first to refill his plate or offer him more bread and honey. The chief told stories as they ate, and Mulder was quickly caught up in his tales. By the time the last of the food was cleared away and Kicking Horse had lit his pipe, Mulder was feeling both sated and relaxed. He leaned back on his elbows, stomach full. He sighed with contentment.
"It has been a good day," Kicking Horse said, puffing on his pipe.
"Will you be staying the night?"
"No, I have to go soon."
"You are always on the move. Like a coyote."
"Not true. I spend a lot of time holed up in my cabin."
"You should take my daughters back to your cabin with you."
Startled by the chief's suggestion, Mulder straightened. "Take them to my cabin?" The question squeaked from his throat.
"Yes. They can keep you company. Cook for you. Scrape hides. Carry firewood. Make you forget about the pains of your flesh." Kicking Horse poked Mulder's bruised ribs. "After a few days, you will choose which you like best and marry her."
"Uh..." Mulder cleared his throat, looking for a way out without insulting the chief. "Suppose I like them both equally?"
"Then marry them both!"
"As tempting as that sounds, Chief, I...I'm not going back to my cabin tonight. I have business in town."
"This business cannot wait a day or two?"
Mulder shook his head.
The chief frowned. "You have been káta'yoohtsimi too long."
"Káta'yoohtsimi?" Mulder was unfamiliar with the word.
"A man who does not marry."
Ah, a bachelor. "I've had a hard time finding a woman willing to tolerate my rather unorthodox ways."
"Maybe there is no white woman like this. But a Pikuni wife is more understanding." He offered the pipe to Mulder. "A good wife can calm a man's soul. Keep him from getting into fights. My daughters could show you this."
"Thank you, Chief." Mulder waved away the pipe and stood. "I appreciate your offer and will keep it in mind."
"Good. Next time you visit, we will talk of it again."
* * *
"Where are we going?" Dana spurred her chestnut mare to keep pace with Skinner's lively, silver-gray stallion.
"It's a surprise." A hint of a smile curled Skinner's lips. The feather in his hat bobbed with each jostling stride of his horse.
"I don't particularly like surprises."
"You'll like this one."
"You seem quite sure of yourself."
His smile faded. "It's my hope you'll like it."
She was still angry with him for his appalling behavior earlier in the day. Clearly, he was prepared to put the incident behind them, but she was not. A gulf had widened between them and if he expected to win back her favor, he had a difficult course ahead of him.
They rode south for almost two miles, Flatwillow and the fort at their backs, the Missouri River and the Rockies' limestone cliffs to their right, nothing but open prairie ahead and to the east. Late afternoon sun painted the rolling landscape pale gold, while growing shadows swallowed the lowlands between the mountains and the water.
At last, Skinner slowed his horse and pointed. "There it is."
On a bluff overlooking the river and facing the mountains stood a two-story farmhouse. Sturdily built, it appeared brand new. A fresh coat of paint brightened the clapboard siding and window trim. A central chimney rose straight and tall from the gabled roof. Sunlight gilded the front windows, giving the impression that lamps burned in every room.
"Who lives there?" Dana asked.
"No one, at the moment."
They rode up to the front porch. Skinner dismounted and tied his horse to the rail.
"Are we going inside?" she asked from atop her horse.
"I want you to see it." He extended a hand to help her down.
Ignoring his gallantry, she dismounted without his help. A twinge of pain shot up her leg when her foot hit the ground. She gasped, giving away her distress.
"Please, don't be stubborn." He offered his arm.
"I'll be as stubborn as I like."
She limped to the front steps, unaided.
He followed her up onto the veranda, which extended the full length of the house. Simple scrolled brackets topped the chamfered posts that supported the roof. Turned balusters added a touch of elegance to an otherwise plain porch rail. The floorboards were clear pine, each nearly two feet wide.
His boot heels thumped against the planks as he strode to the front door, which was set to the far left of the facade, not in the center. Grasping the iron handle, he swung the door open.
She stepped past him into a long, narrow hall. On the left, a staircase connected to an upper story. The stair treads were bare, unvarnished wood, as was the unpretentious banister and rail. The construction appeared first-rate, the joints tight, the trim laboriously sanded. The smell of freshly milled lumber filled the house.
Wainscoting wrapped the foyer's lower walls. The upper portion was plaster and lath, unadorned by paper, paint, or family portraits. None of the usual furnishings crowded the entryway; no carpet decorated the new, pale floor.
"Go on," he urged. "Look around."
She peered through the door to her right. Golden light flooded the empty room, an airy parlor with ample windows and a large fireplace flanked by bookshelves. A collection of carpenter's tools sat in the center of the room. A broom leaned against one wall, next to a tidy pile of wood shavings and sawdust.
"The chimney drafts well," he said, crossing to it. A small amount of soot blackened the brick beneath the grate. He reached a hand into the firebox and rattled the damper.
"You've tried it?"
"Of course." He clapped ash from his hands. The sound echoed off the room's hard surfaces. "Want to see more?"
She nodded, wondering about the lieutenant's motives and hoping the owner of the property would not mind strangers wandering through.
She trailed Skinner down the hall to the rear of the house. On the left was a generously sized dining room with multi-shelved china cabinets built into two corners.
Opening one of the cabinet doors, she stroked its smooth, wood panel and marveled at the brass hardware and leaded glass. "These were finely built."
Staring past her at the cabinets, Skinner allowed himself another small smile. "Thank you."
"You built them?"
"Yes. I built this entire house." His smile grew broader. "Not without help, of course. I'm not much of a mason, but I enjoy woodworking. I've been poking away at it since early spring."
She scanned the carefully mitered trim, the finely plastered ceiling, and tightly fitted floorboards. The room was generous in size and bright with natural light, even this late in the day. Whoever had hired Skinner to build this for him had made a wise choice. "It's...it's beautiful."
Her praise pinked his cheeks. "Let me show you the rest."
He led her from the dining room through a door to a kitchen, a nearly square room dominated by a large fireplace with hooks for cooking pots and a spit for roasting.
"The window faces east." He pointed to the opposite wall. "It makes the room quite cheerful in the morning."
"I can imagine."
"There's a back entrance, too, as you can see." Motioning her across the room, he opened the door to a small porch.
Out in the yard, soil had been turned for a small garden plot to the left. Straight back, a path led to a privy. To the right was a large, newly constructed barn.
"Would you like to see the upstairs before we tour the barn?" he asked.
They retraced their steps to the front hall. He allowed her to lead the way up the stairs.
The upper landing opened onto another hall that ran the length of the second story.
"Turn left," he suggested.
She did and soon found herself in a small bedroom at the rear of the house, the perfect size for a child or servant. A ventilation grate in the floor looked down onto the dining room below. A connecting door led to a second bedroom, slightly larger than the first, above the kitchen. They walked through. Like the previous room, this one had a window overlooking the barn and backyard.
"This would make a good nursery, don't you think?" he asked.
"I suppose it would." She pictured a crib and rocking chair, and children's toys strewn about the floor.
"You see, it connects to both the nurse's room," -- he nodded in the direction they had come -- "and the master bedchamber. This way."
He ducked through a low door into what at first appeared to be a dead-end closet, but in fact continued straight through to a large front bedroom, positioned above the parlor downstairs.
Fingers of sunlight striped the bare walls and clean floorboards. Finely constructed cupboards flanked a large fireplace. A proper door led back out to the hall. Like the rest of the house, there was no furniture, but she could imagine a wardrobe, a washstand, a bed...
She moved to the windows, as far from the lieutenant as she could get, and looked out at the setting sun. The Missouri River flowed molten between the bluff and the blue-black mountains beyond. She wondered which jagged peak held Mr. Mulder's small cabin. How was her rescuer faring after his unwarranted beating? Were his ribs cracked? Did he suffer a concussion? His skull had hit hard against the ledge. He might be unconscious, laid out on his narrow bed, the bed where she had slept only last night.
She would ride out to check on him as soon as she finished her rounds at the infirmary in the morning.
"There's a large linen closet just outside at the end of the hall," Skinner said, interrupting her thoughts, "and two smaller clothes presses. Room to comfortably accommodate a family of moderate size, wouldn't you say?"
"So it would seem."
"There's still a lot to do, obviously. A fence around the kitchen garden, lines strung for laundry, fields to plow, furniture to build, dishes to order...but it's a start. A good start. And if we're blessed with more children than these rooms can hold, well then, the gable at the side gives headway to the attic. I'll just need to add more stairs."
"Why, yes. I built this house for us. Ordered the main timbers the day after your father first spoke of you. What do you say? Can you imagine living here?"
He was getting ahead of himself, and she planned to tell him exactly that. Gathering her thoughts, she stared again at the mountains and tried to pick out Nine Pipe Ridge.
"Why didn't you come to Mr. Mulder's aid this morning?"
"I thought he had caused you harm."
"Why did you assume the worst? Weren't you friends with him at one time?" She turned to face him.
"Yes, and I didn't assume the worst, not at first." He joined her at the window. "I spoke on Mulder's behalf to your father and brothers. I told them to trust him."
"Yet you took one look at me and blamed him."
"What was I to think? Look at you!" He reached out to stroke her cheek, but his fingers fell short of her bruised flesh. He let his arm drop. "I'm sorry. I was wrong."
"It's Mr. Mulder who deserves your apology, not me."
"He'll get it soon enough, rest assured."
His tone was cryptic and she was uncertain what he meant by "soon enough."
"Your word as a gentleman?" she asked.
"On my word, yes. Now, may we talk of something else?"
"Yes, let's. There are a few more important issues we still need to discuss."
"You said you ordered the main timbers for this house the day after my father first mentioned me to you. Why? We hadn't yet met. You didn't know a thing about me."
"I knew what your father told me."
"I suspect Father painted a wildly inaccurate picture."
"Not at all. We've met now and I am not disappointed." He attempted another smile.
"You said yourself that Father mentioned nothing about my course of study."
"Or my wish to practice medicine."
"Also true." He tugged at his sash, although it did not need straightening.
"Do these things matter to you or not? Tell me honestly, Lieutenant, what qualities are you looking for in a wife?"
"What most men want, I think. A companion, obviously. A mother for my boys. A keeper of my house and of my heart." He tagged her arm with the point of his finger. "And you? What is it you hope to find in a husband?"
This was her chance to be honest with him.
"Understanding...understanding that I am my own person with my own opinions and my own voice. I am hoping to find a man who can comprehend my desire to practice medicine, who supports me in that desire, and does not conspire to strip me of my dreams or my individual identity."
His eyes narrowed.
She readied herself for an argument. "Did you hope I would forget about my ambitions the moment I saw this house? Or perhaps you believe you can control me after we are married. I do not wish to be handled, Lieutenant. I want to be treated as an equal."
She expected him to object, but he did not. Instead he grabbed her hand and tugged her toward the door.
"Follow me, please."
"Where are we going?"
She reluctantly trailed him down the stairs, along the hall, and out the back of the house, wondering as she limped along about his intent.
Dying rays of daylight painted crimson streaks across the clouds between the mountaintops and the darkening heavens. Crickets whined in the rustling grass.
She clung to his hand as she followed him down the path. "What's in the barn?"
"Something that will clarify my position beyond all doubt."
She could not imagine how horse stalls and hay lofts might help him make his point, but she went with him anyway. He walked slowly, shortening his stride to accommodate her hobbling gait. His eyes never left her, yet he did not falter in the growing gloom. Clearly, he had traversed this path many times.
At the barn, he released her hand and swung open the door to reveal a gleaming, rock-away buggy just inside.
The small carriage was designed to hold no more than two persons, and, should the riders be large men, the fit would be a tight one. Sliding glass sashes closed off both back and front from the weather. Roll-down curtains provided privacy all 'round. The top was trimmed in leather. The sides were painted a glossy black with delicate striping in yellow for ornamentation. A pair of top quality lamps graced the front. A partition behind the seat was just large enough to store a surgeon's kit.
"It's a physician's phaeton," Skinner explained when she did not speak.
"I know what it is. But what is it doing here?"
"I bought it for you. If you want it."
"If I want it?"
"Yes. Every doctor needs one, doesn't she?"
Tears pricked her eyes. She felt overcome by his unexpected thoughtfulness and generosity. "Where did you get it? *When* did you get it?"
"This morning, after I dropped you off at your father's house. I rode immediately to Kingsbury Basin to make inquiries. As luck would have it, Dr. Blackwell was willing to sell me this one."
She circled the buggy. The seat was upholstered in deep blue morocco cloth, the cushion faces finished with silk lade.
"It's not brand new," he explained. "There wasn't time to order--"
"It's perfect." She ran a palm across the dash rail. "Does this mean...you accept my profession?"
"If I am to have you, it seems I must." He smiled.
"You overwhelm me, sir."
"Inside the buggy. On the floor."
She peered into the phaeton. Hidden in the shadows beneath the bench was a small, hinged wooden box about two inches square. She picked it up. Two carefully carved doves decorated the finely worked lid.
She lifted the lid. Inside she found a lovely sapphire and pearl ring.
Skinner cleared his throat, then removed his hat. "Although our acquaintance has been brief, from the first I have felt a keen affection for you, Dana. It seems there is reciprocity of feeling, as demonstrated by your kiss. I hope you regard me with approval, for I am fully content with your character."
His words sounded rehearsed.
"No, please, let me finish, for I have never been more nervous in my life than I am at this moment -- not even when facing Santa Anna's army." He gripped his hat in both hands, crushing the brim beyond repair. "Dana, you possess a firmness of disposition that I admire and your judgment appears governed by principle. You have earned my esteem, and if I can elicit from you a fondness towards me, then it is my intention to marry you."
"Walter, I really think--"
He held up a hand to stop her.
"I pray I am not rushing this proposal. The matter has been evolving in my mind for a long time -- since the day your father first spoke of you." Stiffly, formally, he lowered himself to one knee. Taking hold of her hand, he looked up at her with earnest eyes. "Dana Scully, should you find my general character and good standing in society to be satisfactory, then please accept this ring now and my name in the near future. Promise to become my life's companion. Do me the greatest of all honors: consent to be my wife."
Continued in Chapter 10
THE MOUNTAIN MAN