The Mountain Man by aka "Jake"

Epilogue

 

Leaving Beckett to watch over her patients, Dana saddled a chestnut mare and rode south along the river to Skinner’s house. Yellow-leaved aspens quaked beneath tin-colored clouds. The air carried the chilly, damp smell of snow, forewarning an early winter. It was September 1st, a month to the day since her arrival in Montana.

She found a horse tied to Skinner’s porch rail. Taking a deep breath, she dismounted, climbed the steps, and knocked on the door.

“Walter?” she called.

When no answer came, she opened the door and let herself in.

“Walter?”

Silence tugged her deeper into the house, past the unfurnished parlor, down the hall to the kitchen. The sound of a spade cleaving earth, regular as clockwork, drew her to a back window.

Skinner was in the yard digging a post hole, dressed in civilian clothes, shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbows. Four freshly milled posts lay on the ground waiting to be set. Sweat glistened on his face and hatless head. Damp soil darkened the saggy knees of his trousers. He wore mud-caked gumboots, not spit-shined military boots. She had never seen him look so rough-and-tumble. Or so at ease.

She opened the door and stepped out onto the small, back porch. “Walter?”

His shovel halted. He glanced up from the hole. A smile spread across his face at the sight of her. He drove the blade into the earth and left it there, wiped his dirty palms on his trousers, and came to stand at the bottom of the steps. “I’m...uh...digging postholes.”

“I see that.”

“For a clothesline.”

She nodded. He continued to smile, waiting for her to say something, maybe praise the sunny location, perfect for hanging laundry, or tell him she was here to accept his proposal at last.

“Mr. Mulder and I have been intimate,” she blurted. A blush crept into her cheeks. She had intended to ask him about his resignation and his plans for the future.

His smile wilted. “When?”

“Does it matter?”

Anger sparked in his eyes. “Did he force you?”

“No.”

He drew a forearm across his sweaty brow. “Are you going to marry him?”

“He hasn’t asked me. I’m not certain I would say yes in any case.”

She expected him to regard her with disgust, but instead he climbed the steps two at a time, reached out, and clasped her hand between his broad palms. Concern darkened his eyes.

“Dana, what if...?” His gaze flitted to her belly. “If Mulder won’t marry you, my offer still stands.”

Did he really love her so much? Enough to forgive her sin and her betrayal? To raise another man’s child as his own, if there was one?

She now understood why her father had chosen him for her. He was a good man and would make an excellent husband.

For a woman who loved him and was ready to become a wife.

“Thank you, Walter, but my answer is no.” She withdrew her hand from his, reached into her pocket, and retrieved the little carved box that held his engagement ring. “I’m sorry.”

He retreated down the steps, refusing to accept the ring or her words. “How will you manage?”

“I have an idea about that.”

He waited to hear her out, eyes swimming with hurt and longing.

“You’ve been kind to me, Walter, which makes asking this favor difficult in the extreme. You’ve already given me more consideration than I deserve.”

“I’ve done nothing I didn’t want to do. And if there’s something more, any way I might contribute to your happiness, just name it.”

If he was still hoping she would change her mind and accept his proposal of marriage, her next words would clarify her position beyond all doubt.

“Sell me your house.”

The house he had built for her, for the two of them. His gaze traveled from foundation to roofline. His voice was thick with emotion when he spoke. “You can have it. As a gift.”

“No. I want to pay for it. I insist.” She was uncertain how -- she still needed to talk to her father about wages, a conversation she was dreading. “It’ll take time, but you will receive full payment.”

He turned away. She feared he was going to say no, but he said nothing as he crossed to the posts on the grass. Brows knotted, jaw working soundlessly as if her request were a piece of tough gristle, he bent and hoisted the nearest pole to his shoulder. He carried it to the hole, kicked the shovel out of his way, and set the pole into the ground with a dull thud. Only then did it seem to dawn on him that the shovel was now out of reach and he would need to either drop the post or ask for her help.

She hurried down the steps and retrieved the shovel.

“Thank you,” he said, taking it in one hand. “Could you, uh, hold this while I--?”

“Of course.”

She steadied the post while he backfilled the hole. After some minor adjustments and considerable tamping, it stood upright on its own.

“Does it look level to you?” he asked.

“It does.”

He nodded, satisfied. “I’ll sell you the house.”

“You will?”

“On one condition.”

“What condition?”

“You accept the phaeton as a gift.”

She smiled and reached out to shake his hand. “Agreed.”

He gave her hand a couple of pumps, then clung to her, his face forlorn. “This isn’t how I wanted it to be.”

“I know.”

“At least I’ll hear from you regularly.”

“You will. I promise.” She gave his hand a final squeeze, before pulling away. “I can’t thank you enough, Walter. For everything.”

*     *     *

Three quarters of an hour later, Dana stood outside the closed door of her father’s office, shoulders back, chin up, confident she was doing the right thing. She was no longer the confused young woman who fretted at the rail of the Dauntless, clutching her father’s note, her future seemingly set. That woman no longer existed. Dana now knew what she wanted. She understood quite clearly the path she was choosing. It would not be an easy one, but it was the best course -- the only course -- for her.

She rapped firmly on the door, ready at last to risk losing her father’s love and protection.

“Come in,” Cap summoned, his voice gruff.

She opened the door and crossed to his desk without hesitation. Her voice was steady and strong when she addressed him. “I have something of importance to discuss with you, Father.”

He lifted his gaze, pen poised over a muddle of papers on the desk. Weariness dulled his eyes. His jowls sagged in a way she had not noticed before. “Ah, I wasn’t expecting you, Dana, but I’m glad you’ve come. Saves me a trip to the infirmary. How are the men?”

“Treworgey and Jackson will be released in a day or so. Hillary, Markham, and Billings by week’s end. Phillips is the most serious case, but I am hopeful he’ll pull through.”

“Good. We’ve lost too many already. I’ve just finished signing condolence letters.” He waved his pen at the papers on his desk. Ink stained his fingers. “Thank you for the update.”

He dipped his pen in the ink well.

Not yet ready to be dismissed, she said firmly, “I’d like to discuss my salary.”

“Your...?” His fist balled around the pen and he met her hardened stare with a frown.

The last time they had discussed her work, he claimed the examination of men’s bodies and the treatment of their diseases was an unseemly profession for a woman. Would he feel differently now that she had saved his soldiers’ lives?

“I expect to be paid for my services. Past and future.” She was surprised at how calm she sounded. “Thirty-five dollars a month.”

He tossed his pen to the desk, eyes wide with astonishment. “You can’t be serious.”

“I am completely serious.”

“The Army will never agree to such an extraordinary sum.”

“The lives of eighteen men aren’t worth thirty-five dollars a month?”

“That’s not the point.”

“What is the point?”

He ran a palm over his bald head. “It’s too much.”

“It’s a typical wage for an Army surgeon.”

“A male Army surgeon.”

“I’m a trained doctor, as good as any man. I can do this job.”

“Your skills are not in question, Magnet.”

The endearment threatened to undermine her resolve, but she forged ahead. “Then why should I not be paid what I’m worth?”

He stood and walked to the window, hands gripped behind his back. A fly buzzed frantically against one of the upper panes, straining to escape.

“I can offer you thirteen dollars a month, no more,” he said at length.

“That’s a nurse’s wage!”

“It’s the best I can do.”

“It’s less than Corporal Beckett makes as my assistant.”

“Yes, but he is a man.” Cap turned to face her.

“So men are paid for their gender, not their competence.”

“A man requires a greater wage than a woman, and you know it. He must earn enough money to support himself and his family, whereas a woman may depend on the largess of her father and husband. She has no need for an additional salary. You must see the logic.”

“I see an inequitable situation.”

He dismissed the idea with a condescending smile. “If you’re worried about your financial situation, let me assure you, you’ll want for nothing as long as you’re living under my roof.”

“I don’t intend to live under your roof after today.”

This gave him pause. “You’ve accepted Lieutenant Skinner’s proposal?” He did not look nearly as pleased as he might have before Skinner decided to resign. “When is the wedding?”

“There isn’t going to be one.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I plan to live on my own.” It felt good to state it aloud. “Walter is selling me his house.”

“Selling...? Preposterous.”

“Why is it preposterous?”

“Because...” Exasperation huffed from Cap's nose. “How will you pay for it?”

“That brings us back to the subject of wages, doesn’t it?”

“I can understand if you don’t want to marry Skinner. He is not the man I once thought either. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up on the idea of marriage altogether. There are plenty of fine officers under my command. I’d be more than happy to introduce you to one or two of the more suitable--”

“Do not fault Walter. He’s a decent man. One of the finest I’ve ever met.”

“Then...why are you turning him down?”

“Because I want to be a doctor, not somebody’s wife. I want to devote myself to making people well. Like the men in the infirmary. I want to heal them so they can go home to their families, live happy lives. It’s what I studied for, what I’m trained for. I’m good at it, Father, and I love it. It’s what I want to do. I believe it’s what I am meant to do.” How could she make him understand? “Haven’t you ever wanted something so badly you were willing to risk everything to make it happen?”

He crossed to the desk and turned up the flame on the lamp. His bewildered expression grew sympathetic in the soft light. “I have. I wanted your happiness, Magnet. From the day you were born, it’s all I have wanted. I would trade anything -- every medal, every commendation, every promotion -- to assure your security, to give you the best possible future. I am even willing to let you hate me if necessary.”

Tears filled her eyes. “I don’t hate you--” Her throat closed, preventing her from saying more.

“I don’t expect you to bend to my wishes if doing so is so contrary to your spirit.”

He did understand! Gratitude swelled in her heart. “Thank you, Father.”

“Don’t thank me yet. The Army won’t pay you more than thirteen dollars a month. There’s nothing I can do about that.” He sounded genuinely regretful.

She was not willing to give up her dream. “Nurses get a clothing allowance, do they not?”

“They do. Three-fifty a month.”

“As well as board?”

“Yes. That, too.”

She could always supplement the meager income by taking on civilian patients. “If I am frugal, I should be able to make ends meet and make regular payments to Walter on even that small salary.”

“I’m opposed to you going off on your own, Dana. I cannot state it plainly enough. I fear for your safety as well as your happiness.”

“I know you do, but I’ll be fine. You’ll see. Am I hired?”

He nodded, resigned. “Yes. You’re hired.”

She went to him, wrapped her arms around his neck, and kissed his cheek.

Head shaking, he embraced her. A powerful bear hug. “I’m proud of you, Dana.” The words puffed into her ear, his praise warming her heart. “You know that, don’t you?”

“I do now.” She allowed herself to feel like a little girl in his arms again, if only for the moment. “I love you, Daddy.”

*     *     *

1 February, 1866. Dana penned the date neatly into her new journal, a Christmas gift from Charlie, who loved writing and believed everyone had a story to tell. Her small desk sat beneath a westerly-facing window in the large upstairs bedroom, the very room where she and Walter were to have spent their wedding night. Patient records, medical texts, and a lantern, unlit at the moment, filled the desktop. More books were piled in orderly stacks on the floor, waiting for the day when she would own a bookcase or two.

Snow swirled beyond the frosted window panes. Ice had shrunk the river to a thin, dark line. The mountains were lost behind a veil of churning flakes. She drew her shawl more tightly around her shoulders and considered what to write next in her journal. Charlie had been quite clear that she was to use it as a personal diary, not to record the progress of her patients.

A small fire crackled in the fireplace behind her, warming the room, her favorite in the house because of its view. The chimney drew admirably, exactly as Walter had promised. On chilly nights, she liked to curl up with a good book in the overstuffed chair beside it. A narrow bed with tarnished brass headboard, worn, tick mattress, and three tattered quilts occupied a corner nearby.

Like most rooms in the house, this one served multiple purposes: dressing room, study, library, bedroom. Downstairs, the front parlor was both a formal drawing room and a place where her patients waited for treatment. The dining room doubled as a surgery. Walter’s beautifully built cabinets held medicines, surgical tools, and materials for dressing wounds, along with china plates and stemware. Dana boiled used bandages and prepared tinctures in the kitchen, right next to her cooking pots and teakettle.

Occasionally a patient who needed extended care would remain overnight in one of the two back bedrooms upstairs. If the patient was male, Sergeant Phillips served as chaperone, staying in the second bedroom, the one Water had intended as a nursery. The sergeant was good company and Dana was glad he had decided to stay on in Flatwillow after his honorable discharge from the Army.

His recuperation had been both painful and long. But he remained as talkative as ever during his convalescence and especially liked to joke about the rippled scar across his scalp.

“I din’t have enough hair fer that Injun feller to grab hold of. My bald head saved my life!”

Phillips would never regain complete use of his right leg, which had required multiple surgeries after infection set in. He used a crutch to get around and had become quite adept at performing certain household chores, like milking Dana’s cow, and splitting and lugging firewood for her. When she tried to pay him for his labors, he refused to take the money. Claimed he owed her, not the other way around, and helping her out gave him something to do while he waited for his family to arrive in the spring.

Dana looked up when a gust of icy flakes rattled the windowpanes. Wind howled across the roof. Fierce winter storms lasted days on end in Montana, creating snowdrifts taller than a man. The cold could steal the breath from one’s lungs, freeze fingers, toes, noses, and ears; she treated seemingly endless cases of frostbite. But when the sun shone, this bitter cold, snow-white world became blindingly bright and beautiful. On clear nights, the moon painted the mountains silver and the stars appeared close enough to touch.

Alone in the house this afternoon, Dana had stoked the fire, prepared a cup of hot tea, and written a letter to Walter. She included her monthly payment for the house in the envelope, which rested on the corner of the desk, waiting to be mailed.

Walter had moved back east two days after she returned his ring. To be with his sons, he said. He wrote to her regularly, updating her on their daily lives until she felt almost as if she were a part of their family. Josiah at fifteen was nearly a man, and little George had turned twelve in November. Both boys were smitten with the girl next door, a red-headed angel named Molly. Her mother, Mrs. Harper, was a widow. Walter spoke quite highly of her in his most recent letter.

“I first met Mrs. Harper -- Sallie Seeper at the time -- in Mission, Delaware, when I was seventeen and she was eight. I saw her frequently back then, and notwithstanding the disparity of our ages, I became favorably impressed by her fair face and gentle manners. She retains both after all these years and I have reason to think we shall become dear friends.”

He signed it “Fondly Yours, Walter,” as he did all his letters.

Dana hoped Mrs. Harper might capture Walter’s heart and return his affections. He deserved to find love and be happy.

Earlier in the day, before the storm set in, Dana had ridden to the fort to check on a patient, a corporal with a bad case of measles. After seeing to his treatment and his noonday meal, she visited her mother.

Her relationship with Maggie had improved since Christmas, when she finally apologized for placing the wedding announcement in the Picayune. Dana accepted her apology, hoping to mend their months-long rift. She missed her mother’s company and even her counsel, although Maggie remained unwilling to accept Dana’s profession and continued to invite her to dinner for the obvious purpose of meeting potential suitors. These dinner affairs always ended the same, with Dana politely rebuffing the gentleman’s advances and, later, telling her mother that she was still not interested in marriage.

“I’m not asking you to marry them, Dana. Just be friendly.”

For Christmas, Maggie gave her a set of saucepans and a brand new copy of Isabella Beeton’s “The Book of Household Management.” She had bookmarked several pages she thought would interest Dana, including a recipe for bread sauce.

As for Cap, he had become Dana’s staunch ally after witnessing the benefits of her skills in the infirmary. He played the role of peacemaker whenever Maggie and Dana butted heads. He also talked about transferring east, where he might help with the reconstruction efforts. Battling Indians to make way for more gold diggers had apparently lost its appeal.

Charlie headed to Oregon on New Year’s Day, unwilling to wait for the spring thaw, his wanderlust overtaking common sense. Or perhaps it was another of his many arguments with Cap that persuaded him to take his leave at such an unfavorable time of the year. He told Dana he planned to write a novel about a French trapper who falls in love with an Indian maiden. She had no doubt this book would be as popular with audiences back east as his last novel had been.

Saying goodbye to Charlie was one of the hardest things Dana had ever done. He tried to stop her tears by claiming he would return in a few months for a visit, but it was a hollow promise, she knew. Charlie was an adventurer, more at home in the wild frontier than beside his own hearth. It would likely be years before their paths crossed again, and the prospect nearly broke her heart. She would miss him fiercely. He had been her confidante, her dearest friend...

Until she met Mulder.

Her gaze wandered past the river to the mountains beyond. Even in a blizzard like this one, she could pick out the distinctive profile of Nine Pipe Ridge.

She had spent many nights in Mulder’s cabin since their first joining. That union had not resulted in a pregnancy, for which she was thankful. Since then, she had insisted they take precautions during lovemaking and ordered a supply of Dr. Power's French Preventatives from a supply house in New York. Mulder did not object to wearing the condoms, although patients who came to her with venereal diseases complained when she suggested they use them, saying that the rubber safes were “like armor against pleasure, and a cobweb against disease.”

Mulder asked her to marry him. Several times. The first had been in late September, when she rode to his cabin to tell him she was not pregnant.

He was outside splitting wood when she arrived at sunset. The sight of him, shirtless and gleaming with sweat, nearly stole her breath away. He abandoned his ax to help her down from her horse.

“How have you been?” She ran her fingers over the healing scars on his arm.

“Missing you.” He kissed her. It had only been a couple of weeks, but, oh, how she longed for those lips! “How are you, Scully?”

“I’m not pregnant.”

His eyes widened a little. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

“A good thing.”

From his expression, she was not convinced he shared her view, but he said nothing more on the subject.

“Do me the honor?” He held out his arms as if inviting her to waltz.

“You want to dance? Here?”

“Why not?”

“Because there’s no music.”

“I hear a thousand violins.”

“Those are crickets, Mulder.”

“A cricket by any other name, Scully, would sound as sweet.”

“Shakespeare is rolling over in his grave.” She took his hand and leaned into him, delighting in the warmth of his skin and the masculine aroma of his sweat.

They danced for several perfect minutes. A smattering of stars glimmered in the sky to the east, gold dust in the blue-black river of Heaven. Vast, open prairie spread seemingly forever in the valley below. To the west, snow-capped peaks, silvery in the half-light, speared the darkening sky.

“I know this isn’t an ordinary kind of life,” he murmured against her temple, “but do you think you might...”

“Might what?”

“Marry me?”

She laughed and ended their dance. “Thank you, but no. I have only just gained my independence. I am not eager to give it up. Ask me again sometime.”

And he did, in October and again in November. Although her answer remained the same, he did not seem discouraged. Apparently, he was a patient man.

The air in the house shifted almost imperceptibly. Although there had been no sound to warn her, she knew someone had opened the back door downstairs. The slight change in atmosphere would go unnoticed by most, but Dana knew her home well and she tensed when she heard the door snick shut. No knock meant the intruder was not Phillips, one of only two people besides herself who regularly used the rear entrance.

Her nerves settled when she recognized the quiet scuff of moccasins on the stairs. It was Mulder.

“Hey,” he greeted her when he entered the room. He crossed to stand behind her and kissed the nape of her neck.

She shivered. “Your lips are freezing!”

The cold clung to his fur coat. He smelled of snow. Flakes sparkled like tiny gems on his raccoon hat.

“Warm me up.” His arms circled her and he buried his nose in her neck, eliciting an uncharacteristic shriek.

“Stop it.” She giggled and shoved him away. “I’ll just be another minute. I’m almost finished here.”

“Take your time.” He fitted the raccoon hat to her head and abandoned her for the bed. The bedsprings squeaked beneath his weight.

“Don’t get snow on my quilts,” she warned without looking at him.

She heard him sit up, remove his coat and moccasins, and toss them on the floor. He settled back onto the bed with a sigh. She dipped her pen in the inkwell, and tried to think of something appropriate to write in her journal.

Her pen scritch-scratched across the snow-white page as she wrote: “My name is Dana Scully. I am a doctor and this is my story.”

She paused, wondering where to go from there.

“Hey, Scully, aren’t you curious about why I was out in this weather?”

Charlie had warned her not to use the journal to write down notes about her patients, but she could describe her work at the fort in general terms, could she not?

“I’ve been searching for a bakaak.”

She could describe the Indians, prospectors, and settlers she treated on a regular basis.

“It’s a malevolent spirit, an extremely emaciated skeleton-like figure -- ‘skeleton’ in the sense of ‘bones draped in skin,’ not ‘bare-bones’ -- with translucent skin and glowing red points for eyes.”

There was no shortage of broken arms to set, wounds to stitch, babies to deliver, and diseases to remedy.

“According to legend, the bakaak preys on Indian warriors, killing them with invisible arrows or beating them to death with a club. After paralyzing or killing its victim, it devours their liver.”

“What?” She turned to look at him.

“I want you to come with me.”

“Where?”

“To look for the bakaak. There’s been a sighting at Wolf Creek.”

“This won't be like that goose chase you took us on last month, will it? To find that, uh...what did you call it? Cadejo.”

“That was a cow-sized dog-goat hybrid, Scully, not a skeletal spirit.”

“Ah.” She set down her quill. There would be no writing in her journal this afternoon. She stood and crossed to the bed. “Make room.”

He scooted to one side of the narrow mattress and she lay down next to him, covering them both with her shawl.

Content in his arms, ear pressed to his chest and still wearing his raccoon hat, she listened to him spin out his fantastic, implausible, yet oddly persuasive tale about bakaaks. She would go with him, she knew, if for no other reason than to find a logical explanation for his alleged malevolent spirit.

Mulder switched from talking about bakaaks to Deer Woman, a human-deer chimera, then to hawk spirits, and finally to anthropophagous giants. There seemed no end to the mysteries and myths of the west. Is this what she had to look forward to -- years of investigating questionable phenomena with “Crazy Fox” Mulder?

The prospect was surprisingly alluring.

A person must live where Na’pi, the maker of the mountains, intends them to live, according to Mulder’s Blackfoot legend. Apparently Na’pi intended her to live at Mulder's side, because despite their differences, she could think of nowhere else she would rather be.

 

The End

 

THE MOUNTAIN MAN
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e-mail: nejake@tds.net