Classification: X (Case Fic); Historical AU; MOTW; MSR
Summary: The year is 1866 and a killer is on the loose in the gold mining town of Flatwillow, Montana. Mulder believes the murderer is a wendigo, a cannibalistic spirit described in Cree legends. Scully insists the attacker is an ordinary wolf, not a malevolent supernatural being. While they pursue the truth, Mulder also tries to persuade Scully to become more than just his lover. He wants to make her his lawfully wedded wife.
Disclaimer: The characters Fox Mulder, Dana Scully, Margaret Scully, William Scully, Sr., John Doggett, Sean Pendrell, Melvin Frohike, John Byers, Richard Langly, Melissa Scully, Bill Scully, Jr., Walter Skinner, Chuck Burks, and Samantha Mulder are the property of Chris Carter, FOX and 1013 Productions. No copyright infringement intended. This is for fun, not profit.
Author's Note: “A Deadly Hunger” is a sequel to The Mountain Man. Although this is a stand-alone story, reading the original will give it context.
Beta: As always, I’m grateful to xdksfan for keeping me from embarrassing myself with typos and confusing passages.
RESIDENCE OF MR. REECE DRUMMOND
FLATWILLOW, TERRITORY OF MONTANA
SUNDAY, MAY 6, 1866
Sixty-two-year-old Reese Drummond lay bloodied and unconscious atop his expensive mahogany dining room table. A once-white sheet draped his body from shoulders to knees. His rotund belly rose up beneath it, giving the impression of a snow-capped mountain. A grandfather clock ticked loudly in one corner. China cabinets with glass fronts reflected the gore and mayhem surrounding the injured man. Mephitic vapors lingered in the air: the sharp tang of sweat, the burn of alcohol, the redolence of raw bone marrow. Mr. Drummond was missing his left arm from elbow to fingertips and his left leg from calf to toes. Adhesive plaster bandages wrapped both stumps.
“Will he live?” asked Mrs. Drummond, the man’s pretty new wife, not yet eighteen. She stood quivering between the room’s two open windows, a lace-trimmed handkerchief held to her nose. She swayed on unsteady legs, on the verge of collapse. Thankfully, she had not watched Dr. Dana Scully and Corporal Josiah Beckett amputate her husband’s limbs, or there would be two unconscious patients instead of one.
“We must pray he recovers, Mrs. Drummond.” Dana washed her hands in a water-filled basin on the sideboard. Her surgeon’s smock was spattered with blood. As was the room’s silk-papered walls, the ornate carpet, and the silver tea service, which sat next to a second basin where Dana’s saws and surgical instruments soaked in a solution of water and whiskey. Corporal Beckett had removed himself from the room moments ago, taking with him a bucket containing their patient’s severed limbs, with the intent of passing them off to a servant at the back step to be buried somewhere on the property.
Tears streaked Mrs. Drummond’s pale cheeks. The sight before her was clearly a shock and she had reason to be worried about her future. As a wife, she was completely dependent on the largesse of her husband. Reece Drummond was wealthy beyond imagination, having struck gold at Weber's Creek in ’48 and again at Rich Bar in ’50. Not content with his staggering fortune, he set up several mercantiles in boom towns across the west, selling goods to prospectors at exorbitant rates. His three-story mansion was the largest, most extravagant residence in Flatwillow. However, if he died, Mrs. Drummond would lose not only her husband’s companionship but his vast holdings as well. All his assets would pass to his eldest son, who had fourteen brothers and sisters from the first Mrs. Drummond to consider before giving a penny to his adolescent step-mother, twenty years his junior.
“What caused his wounds?” the young wife asked.
Well, that was the question. The injuries were strange indeed. “An animal attack of some kind,” Dana said, though this looked like no mutilation she’d ever seen before. More puzzling still, the alleged attack had occurred during daylight hours, inside Drummond’s own barn. He’d been found unconscious and bleeding by a stable hand. “A wolf perhaps.”
Dana dried her hands on one of Mrs. Drummond’s embroidered tea towels. “Sorry,” she apologized for the stains. “Do you have someone to help you while your husband convalesces?”
Mrs. Drummond nodded. “But you’ll be back to tend his wounds, won’t you?”
“Of course. Corporal Beckett will return later this evening and I’ll follow up early tomorrow morning.” Dana felt sympathy for the young woman, whose life was being upended by her husband’s tragic accident.
Movement at the door caught Dana’s eye. She turned to find Fox Mulder standing there, his old Cavalry hat in hand, looking sheepish and out of place in buckskins and moccasins. He motioned her over with a waggle of two fingers.
When she reached his side, he leaned close to whisper in her ear. “Might I talk with Mr. Drummond?”
Mulder glanced nervously at Mrs. Drummond. He kept his voice low. “About the creature that attacked him.”
“Mr. Drummond is in no condition to talk. He’s been given a double dose of laudanum and is unconscious. Anything he might say would be incoherent at best.”
“Oh.” Mulder’s disappointment was clear. “In that case, might I examine the man’s severed limbs?”
There was no point denying him, not when he had that familiar eager look in his eyes. Best to get it over and done.
Dana removed her smock and left it loosely folded on the sideboard next to her surgical instruments. “Follow me.”
She led him down a central hall, past an ostentatious parlor hung with family portraits and an enormous, lavish landscape by the renowned painter Albert Bierstadt, then out a back door off the kitchen. Beckett was outside talking to a grizzled groundskeeper, who held the bucket containing Drummond’s amputated forearm and lower leg.
“Mr. Mulder!” Beckett greeted him with a broad smile. “You’re looking better than the last time I saw you!” He extended a blood-stained hand.
Mulder gave it a hearty shake. “I have you to thank for that, at least in part.”
“I did very little. It was Dr. Scully who saved your life. How are your injuries?”
“No lasting damage.” Mulder rolled his shoulder and flexed his arm as proof.
“Excellent to hear.”
Dana cut their conversation short. “Mr. Mulder is interested in seeing Mr. Drummond’s body parts,” she said.
Mild surprise raised Beckett’s brows but he indicated the limbs in the bucket. “Be my guest.”
The groundskeeper passed the bucket to Mulder, who set it on the flagstone path and then crouched over it for a closer look. The fleshy parts of the limbs — the dermis and epidermis, the subcutaneous fat, and the largest muscles — were eaten away, clean down to the bone. After a brief moment of silent inspection, Mulder peered up at Dana. It was obvious from his expression he wanted to discuss his thoughts with her…alone.
“Corporal Beckett, might I have a private moment with Mr. Mulder?” Dana asked.
“Certainly. Mr. Stevens, here, was just about to show me where we are to bury the limbs.”
“I’ll bring them to you when we’re finished,” Mulder said.
“Of course. Mr. Stevens, shall we inspect the burial site?” Beckett corralled the man with a sweep of his arm and they headed off across the yard, leaving the bucket of body parts behind.
“What is it, Mulder?” Dana asked, kneeling beside him.
“These bites…they don’t look like any animal bites I’ve ever seen. Call me crazy, but they appear almost human.” His index finger traced one curvilinear wound on the thickest part of an ankle. “There are no punctures like you’d expect from the fangs of a wolf or dog. No tearing or shredding of the flesh from a long-clawed animal like a bear.”
She had to admit, the bites did look human. But that would mean…
“Do you know of any Indian tribes that practice cannibalism?” she asked.
“No. Only white settlers named Donner stuck in mountain passes.” He smiled and rose to his feet. “But I have a theory, if you want to hear it.”
“Of course.” She rose, too.
“Have you ever heard of a wendigo?”
“No, but I suspect you’re going to tell me about it.”
His smile broadened. There seemed nothing he enjoyed more than assailing her with tales of fantastical creatures and mythical events — extreme phenomena that strained credibility.
“Ojibwe, Naskapi, and Cree legends describe wendigos as malevolent, cannibalistic, supernatural beings or spirits. They’re giant human-like creatures with hearts of ice, a foul stench, and gluttonous appetites. A sudden, unseasonable chill precedes their approach. It’s said they’re attracted to insatiably greedy or ravenously hungry people. An attack occurred near a village along Ookáán River recently. The victim died from wounds very much like these.”
She shook her head. “Legends are not facts, Mulder, and I shouldn't have to tell you how outlandish and impossible that story sounds.”
“Mm.” Mulder appeared thoughtful as he readied the argument she was sure was forthcoming. “Rich Mr. Drummond is considered by many to be a greedy man, is he not?” he asked.
“I couldn’t say. Is that your proof he was attacked by something more mystifying than a wild animal?”
“Well, wild animals rarely concern themselves with human greed, Scully.”
“True, but if they’re hungry enough, they might be attracted to a sizable, slow moving man like Drummond.”
“Possibly.” His tone was tolerant. “But what about the teeth marks?”
“Perhaps the bites are from an older animal whose canines have been worn smooth by age.”
“Would you care to place a wager on that,” he gently scoffed. "I’m telling you, it wasn’t an ordinary creature that killed this man.”
The evidence lay right in front of him but, as usual, Mulder was ignoring any probable explanation, preferring instead to jump to unlikely paranormal nonsense. Why could he never entertain a straightforward conclusion?
“As much as I’d like to continue this debate, Mulder, I’m late for Sunday dinner with my parents. They’ll be displeased enough that I missed church service this morning. I don’t want to add to their disappointment.”
“Okay, Scully. We can pick this up later, at which time I’ll prove to you I’m right.” He was like a dog with a bone.
“We must.” Before she could stop him, he leaned in and kissed her cheek.
Her face heated and she ducked away. “Mulder!” She glanced quickly around. No one was watching but she chastised him anyway. “Not in public. We’ve discussed this.”
Their intimacy was a strict secret, one she did not want exposed, most especially to her father. William “Cap” Scully considered Mulder a traitor, an offense punishable by death.
There’s a cemetery full of graves beyond the stockade, Cap had said to Dana shortly after she arrived at Fort Culbertson last August. In those graves are soldiers who lost their lives fighting Indians -- Indians supplied with weapons by Fox Mulder.
Cap was duty-bound to bring Mulder to justice and could not be convinced otherwise. Lord knows, she had tried. She had also tried to get Mulder to stop providing any additional weapons or ammunition to the native tribes, in hopes that by doing so it might appease Cap. But Mulder was as stubborn as her father and refused her request. He claimed his acts were altruistically motivated and not so different from her own subterfuge last winter when she had inoculated two dozen Blackfoot Indians with an overstock of smallpox vaccines from the fort’s medical stores. She argued she would do the same again to save lives and he declared he would do likewise, leaving them at an impasse.
“Say hello to the family for me,” Mulder joked now before taking his leave.
She knew he wished to be completely open about his love for her. He’d proposed marriage at least half a dozen times in as many months, all of which she consistently declined. He seemed willing to take his chances with Cap but she most certainly was not. She would not put Mulder’s life at risk, not until she could convince Cap to exonerate Mulder from any past offenses. She was certain she would succeed eventually. In the meantime, she would maintain her hard-won reconciliation with Cap while keeping him and Mulder as far apart as possible.
A vivid memory of her last joining with Mulder caused a pleasant warmth deep in her pelvis. She yearned for his fiery touch and consuming affection, ached for it even now, but out here in public, they must maintain a professional distance.
RESIDENCE OF MAJOR & MRS. WILLIAM SCULLY
Scully dismounted her horse and tied it to the rail in front of her parents’ house. She straightened her skirts, brushed road dust from her sleeves, and tucked a loose strand of hair into her chignon before mounting the porch steps. She wore a simple belted day dress this afternoon, striped green and black with minimal trim. A fitted paletot, cropped mid-thigh, provided warmth. Spring arrived late in Montana and the afternoon air held a chill, carried on a stiff breeze from the higher elevations still buried in snow. The grasslands of the plains, however, were greening up, holding the promise of warmer days ahead. At last. It had been a long — very long — winter.
Halfway up the stairs, Dana noticed splotches of dried blood staining her leather boots.
“Damn.” She’d already ruined several pairs since moving to Montana, including her best side-lace boots. A hazard of her job.
There was nothing to be done about it now. She was already an hour late. Thankfully, her doctor’s smock had managed to keep her dress stain-free, which wasn’t always the case.
Maggie met her inside the front entry, looking harried and displeased by Dana’s tardy arrival. Dana kissed her cheek.
“Sorry to have missed this morning’s church service, Mother,” she apologized before Maggie could chide her. Dana removed her jacket, unpinned her bonnet, and placed both on the coat-rack by the door. “I was called to an emergency.”
Rather than asking for details, Maggie tsk-tsked Dana’s ensemble. For an instant, Dana thought her dress might’ve been stained after all, until her mother said, “Sweetheart, I told you we were having guests for dinner. I’d hoped you’d dress for the occasion.”
In contrast to Dana’s plain attire, Maggie wore a richly patterned dress with lace collar, silk ceinture, and pagoda sleeves, filled with ballooning engageantes, as white as the Rockies’ snowcapped peaks. A beaded snood held her flyaway hair in place.
“Guests?” Dana asked, dreading the implication. Her mother had a habit of inviting eligible bachelors to dinner to meet Dana, in hopes of sparking a match that would result in marriage. Keeping her relationship with Mulder a secret had its distinct disadvantages. Dana peeked into the parlor.
Sure enough, two officers stood stiffly talking with her father. A tall, rawboned captain and a baby-faced, red-haired lieutenant. Both looked as ill-at-ease as Dana felt.
“Yes, dear?” Her mother’s frown was replaced with a satisfied smile. “It’s pleasant to expand one’s circle of acquaintances, don’t you agree?”
Her father spotted her in the doorway and waved her into the room. Dana forced what she hoped was an agreeable expression and went to greet them.
“Gentlemen, may I present my daughter Dana.” Her father’s cheeks puffed with pride. He wore a major’s uniform now, having been promoted at the start of the year. Despite his change in rank, Dana continued to regard him as “Cap” and herself as his “Magnet” from Cooper’s book The Pathfinder, which was once a favorite of theirs. She was grateful to be back in her father’s good graces after the upheaval of last year and was determined to keep peace between them as it was her hope to one day convince him to absolve Mulder of any wrongdoing. “Dana, these gentlemen are officers under my command: Captain John Doggett and Lieutenant Sean Pendrell.”
Both men gave polite bows. Lieutenant Pendrell grinned like a schoolboy while Captain Doggett offered a tepid, thin-lipped smile.
“Sirs.” Dana nodded to each in turn. “Pleased to meet you both.”
“The pleasure is all ours,” Pendrell insisted, bobbing his head.
Dana was rescued from saying more when Millie, her mother’s domestic, called them into the dining room, where the table sparkled with Maggie’s best china and silver. A cheery centerpiece of yellowbell and arrowleaf balsamroot topped the perfectly pressed linen tablecloth.
“Where would you like us to sit, dear?” Cap asked Maggie.
“You’re at the head, of course, and I’m at the foot. Dana, you’ll sit between your father and Captain Doggett. Lieutenant Pendrell, I’m afraid you’ll have to make do on your own as we haven’t enough women.”
“An all-too-common occurrence here in the west, it seems,” he said, making the other men chuckle.
Doggett held Dana’s chair while she settled herself. Once they were all seated, Millie served the first course, an aromatic giblet soup.
Over their soup, Dana learned that an influx of troops was heading west and was due to arrive in Flatwillow over the next two months. Their numbers would complement the troops already stationed at Fort Culbertson, placing a full battalion under Major Scully’s command by summer’s end. Doggett and Pendrell were part of this expansion.
“The additional soldiers are needed to maintain order as the number of miners and settlers increases almost daily.” Cap addressed his comments to Maggie and Dana. Presumably the officers were already aware of the plan to swell their ranks and why. “Skirmishes with the Indians will become increasingly common, unfortunately. And deadly. The Cavalry must protect the citizenry if the Territory is to grow and thrive and, God willing, one day become a state.”
Although Dana was pleased about her father’s promotion and the expansion of Flatwillow, she could foresee Mulder doubling his efforts to help the Indians. She also anticipated an increase in her responsibilities as the fort’s doctor. How would she manage more patients than she treated at present?
“Additional soldiers will place more demand on the infirmary,” she said. “Are there plans to increase the number of beds, expand the dispensary, and appoint more medical staff? Space in the surgery is already limited to the extreme—”
“Those decisions will be made by the men in Washington, all in due time, Dana,” Cap said. “There’s nothing to concern you at this early stage.”
Easy for him to say. And of course he would think that. Almost as an afterthought, she considered her pitiful salary. If she was expected to care for more patients, surely she deserved a raise, didn’t she? Higher wages would allow her to pay off her debt to Walter Skinner for the purchase of his house sooner rather than later. It might also give her enough to finally furnish the home with something other than castoffs in need of repair. It wasn’t that she yearned to live lavishly but, Lord, what she wouldn’t give for a full-sized bed to replace the lumpy, narrow cot with squeaky springs that she and Mulder currently shared!
The main course arrived — roast loin of veal garnished with forcemeat balls. The conversation turned to the two guests.
“Captain Doggett hails from New York,” Maggie informed Dana.
“Though I was born in Georgia,” he added. “My family moved north when I was eight. Father was a constable. I followed in his footsteps before the war.”
“Captain Doggett distinguished himself at the Battle of Atlanta under Major General Sherman,” Cap added, “though he rose up through the ranks long before that victory. He’s a highly decorated war hero and a recipient of the Medal of Honor for meritorious service.”
“Most impressive, Captain Doggett,” Dana said. She hoped she sounded more interested than she felt.
“I was only carrying out my duty,” Captain Doggett said, brushing aside the compliments before giving one of his own. “This veal is the best I’ve ever tasted, Mrs. Scully.” He clearly wanted to turn the conversation away from himself. Dana appreciated his modesty and lack of pride.
“Lieutenant Pendrell, you’re from Massachusetts, are you not?” Maggie asked.
“Yes, ma’am. Boston. I joined the 23rd Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment in ’61, two days after my 18th birthday. Arrived in North Carolina in March of ’62. Embarked on a Union gunboat sent to attack Confederate vessels and forts around Roanoke Island.” His eyes never left Dana. “My gunboat blew up and my clothing caught on fire! My first battle and I thought I was done for, but I jumped into the water and quelled the flames. Survived with only minor injuries. Went on to fight and win at New Bern. Life of a soldier is never boring, that’s for sure.” He forked veal into his mouth, ending his longwinded account.
It wasn’t until the dessert course that the guests asked Dana about herself.
“Your father mentioned you are the fort’s doctor, Miss Scully,” Doggett said, his spoon in his sponge cake but his eyes on her. “That must be a challenge, especially for a young woman. Where did you study medicine?”
“Hobart College. Geneva, New York. And yes it is a challenge, for a woman or a man.”
“She’s a hell of a surgeon,” Cap boasted. His opinion of her skills as a doctor had certainly taken a turn since last August, when she’d proven her worth following a devastating Cree Indian attack.
“Are you overseeing any interesting cases at present?” Pendrell asked, earning a scowl from Maggie. The subjects of injuries or illnesses were never welcome at her table.
“Yes, in fact, I am,” Dana said, ignoring her mother’s judgement. “Mr. Drummond, owner of Drummond’s Mercantile, was attacked by a wild animal earlier today. During daylight hours inside his own barn. I had to amputate his forearm and lower leg. It’s why I was late for our dinner, for which I apologize.”
“Oh dear!” Maggie looked like she might lose her meal.
“What sort of wild animal?” Cap asked.
Dana chose not to mention Mulder’s ideas on the subject, of course, in part because she didn’t agree with them but more so because the very mention of his name would send her father into a rage and start an endless rant. Instead she said, “It’s uncertain at this time. But it must’ve been large and fierce to have eaten away so much of Mr. Drummond’s flesh. The damage to his leg in particular—”
Maggie rose from the table and hurried from the room, her napkin pressed to her mouth.
“I’m sorry, that clearly wasn’t a proper subject for dinner conversation,” Dana said, placing her napkin next to her dessert plate. “I apologize.”
“I’m actually glad you mentioned it, Dana, though perhaps it could’ve waited until later.” Cap laid down his spoon. “Given this startling news, the men and I shall put together a hunting team to find the threat and dispatch it before it does any more harm. Gentlemen, will you lead the effort?”
“Yes, sir,” both men replied, Pendrell with eager gusto and Doggett with calm assurance.
“In that case, I shall attend to Mother while you gentlemen discuss your plans. Please, excuse me.” Dana rose from the table. The men all rose, too. Pendrell looked stricken to see her leaving them so suddenly. “I’ll return to say goodbye before you men finish your cigars and cognac,” she assured them.
Relief smoothed Pendrell’s worried features.
As promised, Dana returned after checking on Maggie, who decided to retire early. Dana found the men gathered in the parlor.
“How is Mrs. Scully?” Cap asked her.
“She’ll be fine, Father, but she asked me to send her regrets for abandoning everyone.”
“Miss Scully, we were about to play cards,” Pendrell said. His expression reminded Dana of her childhood puppy Jack, begging for scraps. “Would you join us in a game of Euchre?”
“We need a fourth, Magnet,” Cap cajoled.
Dana would have preferred to go home, take a long, steamy soak in her bathtub, and be asleep in bed at a reasonable hour for once. But she didn’t want to disappoint her father and felt responsible for her mother’s upset stomach and sudden departure, so she reluctantly agreed to play a round.
The men quickly arranged four chairs at the game table. Cap found a deck of cards while Millie brought libations. Luck of the draw partnered Dana with Doggett, which left Pendrell looking momentarily crestfallen. He rallied, however, when he realized that meant he would be seated to Dana’s right and not across the table from her.
The men drank port and Dana sipped tea while they played. In deference to Dana, Cap declared military topics off limits, insisting on more general subjects.
“Are you married, Captain Doggett?” Cap asked without preamble, making Dana cringe. Could his intentions be any more obvious?
“I’m a widower, sir.”
To Dana’s horror, Cap’s further probing divulged Doggett was the father of a son, now deceased. Murdered, apparently, under circumstances Doggett described as “mysterious.”
“Mysterious? In what way?” Pendrell asked, seemingly unaware of his own insensitivity. “Was his body not recovered?”
“It was,” Doggett replied stiffly. “But…”
“Nothing of importance, Lieutenant. My opinions on the situation are those of a father addled by grief, so cannot be considered reliable.” Doggett studied his cards. “My son’s killer was never identified or brought to justice.”
Dana offered her condolences, then steered the subject away from Doggett’s tragedy by addressing Pendrell, hoping he had no calamitous tale to tell. “What about you, Lieutenant Pendrell? Do you have a wife and family of your own?” She very much hoped he’d say yes.
“No, miss.” Pendrell smiled broadly. “But before the war, there was a gal I was mighty sweet on. Polly was her name. Pretty as a picture. My intent was to propose marriage come spring but my best friend Buddy beat me to the punch. Put me off the idea of getting hitched.”
“You’re not still resistant to the possibility, surely?” Cap asked.
Pendrell stared openly at Dana. “Not entirely resistant, sir.”
“Pass or play?” Dana asked, indicating it was Pendrell’s turn.
“Uh…pass?” He seemed uncertain what question he was actually responding to.
“Then the trick is mine, making five.” Dana took the hand. “Two more points to Captain Doggett and myself, making a total of ten. The game is won.” She smiled at him. Their success appeared to cheer him. “Shall we play another round?”
They enjoyed several more games but when the clock in the corner struck a quarter to eight, Dana insisted she must take her leave.
“It’s been a wonderful evening, gentlemen, but the sun will soon set,” she argued against their objections. She rose to get her jacket from the front hall.
All three followed her out. Captain Doggett helped her on with her coat.
“May I escort you home, Miss Scully?” he suggested. “For safety’s sake, given the animal attack you mentioned earlier. If Major Scully is amenable, of course.”
“I’m beaten to the punch again,” Pendrell said, plainly disappointed he hadn’t thought to volunteer first.
“An excellent idea, Captain Doggett,” Cap hurried to say. “You have my permission and my gratitude.”
But not mine, Dana wanted to object. Instead, she said, “While I appreciate your kindness, Captain Doggett, there is no need to trouble yourself. I’ve traveled the road countless times, day and night.”
“Darkness is one thing, but a man-eating beast is quite another. Once a carnivore has tasted human flesh, it will try to satiate itself again.”
“You sound an expert on the subject.” She pinned her hat to her hair.
“Not an expert but I have witnessed the savage power of a rabid wolf. Please, let me accompany you.”
Cap cut in. “I insist on it, Dana. Captain Doggett will ride with you.”
She could see no point in arguing further. Their minds were made up and her opinion, as usual, mattered very little. “Fine. I gratefully accept Captain Doggett’s generous offer of protection.”
VILLAGE OF THE STAY-BY-THE-FORT PEOPLE
Several grouse roasted on a spit over a central hearth, filling the tipi with a mouthwatering aroma. The fire crackled and snapped as it cast light and shadows across the shelter’s hide interior. Mulder and Few Tails relaxed while Few Tail's wife, Good Thunder, prepared a platter of timpsula cakes and spring greens. The couple’s baby son, not yet a year old, slept soundly on a cradleboard. Their oldest daughter Chases The Morning and her two younger sisters played nearby with a porcelain-faced doll that Mulder had brought them last summer. The doll no longer wore its original calico and lace dress but was clothed instead in beaded buckskin. Two tiny moccasins protected its dainty china feet.
“What brings you to my hearth, Ohkó?” Few Tails asked in his native language. Sitting cross-legged and comfortable, he filled his pipe with red willow bark and lit it with a glowing strip of tinder. He aimed the pipe to the One above and allowed the smoke to drift heavenward. He then offered the pipe to Mulder. “Let us smoke together.”
Mulder removed his hat and set it in his lap before accepting the pipe. Placing the mouthpiece to his lips, he drew on the stem. Smoke sifted from his nostrils when he spoke. “I saw something strange today,” he said in Blackfoot. “I’d like your opinion on it.”
“What did you see?”
Mulder returned the pipe to his friend. “A man in town was attacked. Shortly after sunrise, inside his barn. Large chunks of flesh were missing from his lower arm and leg. The bites appeared to be human.”
“Not a wild animal?”
“No, I don’t think so.” Mulder’s fingers worried the brim of his hat. “I’m thinking the man may have been attacked by a wendigo.”
Few Tails’ eyes widened. He set down the pipe. “Hm. There was talk of an attack like that near an A'aninin village on the Ookáán River not long ago.”
“Can you tell me what happened?”
“A relative of a wife to my cousin Brave Wolf was ambushed and mortally wounded. Before he died, he claimed a wendigo had caused his injuries.”
“Do you believe that’s possible?”
Few Tails shrugged. “Anything is possible.”
“Why would a wendigo appear here now? What does it want?”
“It is said a wendigo is a selfish creature with an insatiable hunger. The more it eats, the bigger it grows, and the bigger it grows, the more it needs to eat. It is always starving and can never be full. Killing and consuming one person will not satisfy it. It constantly hunts for more. It targets people with a lot of meat on their bones. If the person is too thin or if the wendigo is especially hungry, it will eat its victim’s bone marrow, too, to satisfy its cravings.”
That gave Mulder pause. If wendigos were insatiable, why hadn’t the one that attacked Drummond eaten more than just the flesh of his lower leg and arm? Had something scared it off? Or attracted it elsewhere? Clearly there was more to know about these creatures.
Good Thunder offered Mulder a timpsula cake but he waved it off, his appetite suddenly gone.
“What does it look like?” Mulder asked Few Tails.
“It is taller than a man. But it is emaciated, too, its skin pulled tightly over its bones. Its flesh is gray like ash. And like a skeleton on a burial platform after a long winter, its eyes rest deep in their sockets, its lips are tattered. It gives off the stench of decay and death. It brings the chill of winter.”
“There is more.”
“It is said that a man can turn into a wendigo if he survives an attack.” Few Tails’ frown deepened. “If he loses a leg or an arm, even his head, he will grow these things back. A wendigo will sometimes eat its own limbs if it can find nothing else because it knows it can regrow them.”
Mulder shifted uneasily. “Can it be killed?”
“An arrow or bullet can slow it but not stop it. A wendigo’s heart must be cut out and melted or burned in a fire before its spirit is truly vanquished.”
“I’m suddenly wishing I hadn’t traded you my knife last summer.”
Few Tails nodded. “It is a good knife. Perhaps you would like to trade to get it back.”
“What would you take for it?”
“The rifle you carry on your saddle would be acceptable.”
“I’d rather trade you the saddle!” Mulder scoffed. “I’d go hungry without that rifle.”
“I have no need for a saddle.” Few Tails gave a disinterested wave of his hand.
Mulder fitted his hat to his head, preparing to leave, when Few Tails said, “I might trade the knife for that.”
“My hat?” Mulder removed it from his head and turned it over in his hands, considering Few Tails’ proposal. The felted wool was worn thin from wear and the grosgrain ribbon at the edge of the brim was frayed. The Cavalry feathers and braid were long gone. The brass cross-swords pinned to the front were badly tarnished and in need of polishing. He had worn this hat into battle. Several battles, in fact. A couple were even victories. But since quitting the military, he had come close to tossing it into the muddy Missouri on more than one occasion.
“Few Tails, it’s not like you to want something of so little value. And I’ve never seen you wear a hat.”
“I do not need a hat, but my cousin Howling Crane would be pleased to have it. I think I can trade it to him for two of his ponies.”
“Two—?” Mulder passed him the hat. “It’s a deal.”
Few Tails nodded with satisfaction. He then removed the leather scabbard that held Mulder’s old Ames rifleman’s knife from his belt. He handed it over. Mulder took it and pulled the knife from its sheath to inspect the twelve-inch blade, carved wooden handle, and brass cross guard. It looked as pristine as when he had traded it to Few Tails last August.
“You didn’t use it?” Mulder inserted the knife back into its sheath.
Few Tails shrugged. “Too showy.”
“Well, I appreciate you keeping it in such good condition.” Mulder stood. “Best of luck trading the hat.”
“Next time you visit, there will be two additional ponies staked beside my tipi. Your hat will be on my cousin’s head.”
Mulder smiled and strapped on the knife, pleased to have it back. As he stepped from the tipi into the dying rays of the setting sun, he heard Few Tails call out to him, “Be careful, Ohkó!”
EN ROUTE TO THE RESIDENCE OF DR. DANA SCULLY
Dana and Captain Doggett rode at a trot for the first mile, leaving behind the hubbub of the fort. She took the lead on her chestnut mare; he followed closely behind on a buckskin gelding. The carriageway split at the Missouri River, where a steamship was unloading goods at the dock. The road’s northern spur led to Flatwillow and the goldfields beyond. The southerly route could take a traveler all the way to Gallatin, if he was intent on riding a hundred miles. It was also the way to Dana’s house. With a touch of the reins, she steered her horse south.
The rutted, muddy roadway followed the river, which ran deep and fast at this time of year. The air was rife with its silty odor. This late in the day, the Rockies cast a deep shadow across the water, painting it inky black. The sun’s dying rays fanned out in pink and gold fingers across the lowland hills to the east. Night swallowed up mile after mile of sprouting grassland and budding forest as the minutes ticked by.
After another half mile, Dana slowed her horse. The trees grew thicker here. An owl hooted from a nearby copse. The piney scent of spruce, juniper, and larch superseded the smell of the river. The sky began to fill with stars as dusk set in. Doggett pulled up beside her to make it easier for them to converse.
“You live quite a distance from the fort,” he said.
“Not so far. Only a little over two miles.”
“Doesn’t it worry you to be so removed from other people? Wouldn’t you prefer to live in town or within Fort Culbertson’s protective walls?”
“Not at all. I enjoy the independence that my own home provides.”
Freedom was something most men took for granted, Dana had often observed, while the majority of women never got the opportunity to experience it. She was one of the lucky few. She’d worked hard to become a doctor and through grit and determination, proved herself worthy of her position at the fort. The Army paid her very little but it was enough to make payments on Walter’s house. And that house had become a sanctuary. It provided a safe haven where she and Mulder could express their love in private, away from her father’s disapproval and threats to Mulder’s life.
Mulder’s safety was Dana’s number one priority, no question, but truth be told, it wasn’t the only reason she had declined his marriage proposals. As a married woman, she could not own property or be a doctor. As a single woman, she was free to practice her profession, a role she’d trained for and treasured, but would most assuredly lose if she and Mulder were to wed. Not solely because of Cap’s animosity toward Mulder, though that was a significant obstacle, but because the Army, like most institutions and businesses in the US, would not employ a married woman.
Unfortunately, to keep the job she prized and to protect the man she loved, she had little choice but to remain unmarried.
“I hope you have someone to provide guardianship and help with the more strenuous chores,” Doggett continued. "A male servant, perhaps, or a relative?”
She bridled at his probing questions. She certainly wasn’t going to divulge her personal situation with Mulder to this man, who might report it back to her father.
“Of course,” she said, keeping her tone light. “Sergeant Phillips chops my wood, tends my garden, milks my cow.” All of which was true.
“Sergeant Phillips? I don’t recall his name on the rolls.”
“He’s retired, Captain Doggett. Discharged with honors after suffering severe injuries in battle last summer. He nearly died.”
“You saved him?”
“I did. And now he saves me from the drudgery of manual labor and the worry of a solitary life.”
“It’s worked out for you both then.”
The horses’ hooves clopped through the mud, filling a lull in their conversation. At length, Doggett asked, “Is Sergeant Phillips your beau?”
This made her laugh. “Sergeant Phillips is a married man and the grandfather of six. He has sent for his wife, who will join him here later this summer.”
“Ah. Apologies for my presumption and prying.”
The high-pitched chirrup of spring frogs serenaded them as they continued on. Far overhead, an invisible flock of geese honked its way north.
“Speaking of prying, thank you for turning tonight’s conversation away from my personal tragedy,” Doggett said. "I appreciated it.”
“It was clear you were not comfortable with the subject.”
“Further discussion would’ve made it even more uncomfortable.”
“Then, I am glad we didn’t persist.”
Doggett’s next words came out in a rush. “My wife died three days after we lost our son.”
“Indeed.” He seemed to be working up his courage to go on.
“You need say no more.” Dana didn’t care to hear his confessions. The two of them were not so personally acquainted. One evening of cards did not make them friends.
“My wife Barbara…you see…well, her grief was so great, she ingested a full pint of laudanum.” Upon seeing Dana’s stricken expression, he continued, “It was years ago, you understand. I have learned to live with it.”
How did one learn to live with such a tragedy? Sympathy rose up in Dana, making her ashamed of her earlier reluctance to hear him out.
She was saved from commenting further when her house came into view. Lantern light glowed behind several windows, smoke rose from the chimney, and Mulder’s pinto, Ponoká, was tied to the front rail.
She decided to tell a half-truth. “As you can see, Captain Doggett, Sergeant Phillips takes good care of me and my home.” She hoped that Mulder would stay hidden until Doggett took his leave. Halting her mount beside Ponoká, she let Doggett assume the pinto belonged to Phillips and not Mulder.
Doggett reined his horse to a stop, too. “So it seems. Can I help you put your horse in the barn?” he asked.
“Thank you, no. Phillips will see to it.” She dismounted and tied the horse to the rail. It nosed the pinto, which ignored its prodding. “You’ve done more than enough for me tonight, Captain. I’m grateful for your time and companionship.”
“It’s been my pleasure, Miss Scully.” He tipped his hat. “I’ll watch you get safely inside.”
“Thank you.” She hurried up the stairs to the wide, wraparound porch. “Goodbye,” she called out, turning to wave.
He returned her wave before riding off. She reached for the door handle but was stopped by the scuff of moccasins against the porch floorboards.
“I’m grateful for your time and companionship,” Mulder mimicked her words from the shadows, pitching his voice high and adopting a singsong effect. She could just make him out on the porch swing. “What else did the fine Captain do to earn your gratitude?” he asked in a normal tone.
“Jealousy doesn’t become you, Mulder.” She crossed the porch to sit next to him.
When she settled beside him, he stretched an arm across the seat-back and draped his hand over her shoulder. His fingers languidly caressed the plush sleeve of her coat.
“Where’s Sergeant Phillips?” she asked.
“I sent him home.”
“That was presumptuous.”
“What are you implying?”
“You want us to be alone.”
“I always want that.” He squeezed her shoulder and nuzzled her cheek.
She leaned into the sandpaper scour of his jaw. Raised her lips to his.
He needed no additional coaxing. His mouth covered hers, his kiss urgent and warm and so, so satisfying. His tongue skated across her lips, demanding to be let in. She complied, opening her mouth to him. His taste slid wetly over her tongue as he filled her. His arms drew her closer. Her pulse quickened as her desire grew. It had been more than a week since they’d last kissed like this, half a month since they’d shared a bed. That time had been in his mountain cabin, a delightful respite from her responsibilities as a physician. Those three days of love making had been heavenly, though all too brief. She was soon called back to Fort Culbertson and Mulder went off to Gallatin to trade furs for weapons and ammunition, which would undoubtably go to the Blackfoot. His embrace now felt like a homecoming.
Before she’d become intimate with Mulder, Dana had no idea men and women put their tongues inside each other’s mouths. It wasn’t something ever discussed in medical school. Or at least her male instructors and classmates hadn’t included her in such discussions. Her mother certainly never mentioned it either. Yet, it was so damn seductive!
And there was more. It wasn’t long before she learned other unexpected ways Mulder could use his tongue to bring her to ecstasy. Acts that both shocked and gratified her. Were other women aware of these wonderments? Had Melissa experienced similar pleasures? Did all men know these mysteries and, if so, why were women not told of them, too? She recalled her mother saying, “Your husband will instruct you on all you need to know...on your wedding night.”
It was ridiculous that one sex was kept in the dark while the other was not.
“Upstairs?” he asked, breaking their kiss. He was breathing heavily. As was she.
As much as she wanted to ignore everything except the touch of his fingers and the hunger in his eyes, she reminded him, “The horses need tending.”
A desperate look passed over his features. “I’ll take care of them. You go up and undress.”
He quickly stood, offered her a hand up, and as soon as she was on her feet, he bolted down the porch steps, grabbed the horses’ reins, and tugged them toward the barn. His haste made her chuckle. Then she hurried into the house and up the stairs to the bedroom to ready herself for him.
* * *
When Mulder arrived in the bedroom a few minutes later, he found Dana seated at the small, unadorned pine desk that served as her vanity. She faced a heavily foxed mirror while brushing out her hair. The dress she had been wearing earlier now hung on the wardrobe door, along with her crinoline underskirt. Her boots were tucked neatly beside the bed. The room was lit by a single oil lamp and the fire he had started earlier, which snapped and flickered on the andirons. She was dressed only in her undergarments and stockings.
“Let me.” He took the brush from her and, standing behind her, drew it through her long hair. Her hair shone like burnished copper in the firelight. It felt like silk against his palm.
Her head lolled and the tops of her breasts bounced delightfully with each brush stroke. From his higher vantage, he had a perfect view of her creamy décolletage.
“Tell me about your visit,” he prompted.
“There’s little to tell. We ate. We played cards. I came home.”
“With an escort.”
“That was not my idea or preference. Given the attack on Mr. Drummond, the men thought it best.”
“Who else was at this little soirée of your mother’s? More potential husbands?”
“Yes, but you needn’t worry. My heart belongs to you.”
Ah, but he did worry. Men far outnumbered women in the west. And he would be the first to admit, he wasn’t the most upstanding of the lot. She seemed satisfied enough to bed him but…not to marry him. She’d turned him down multiple times, claiming it was for his own safety. Maybe it was but he could not help but think that given her family’s low opinion of him, her interest would eventually wane under the pressure to please them. She craved her father’s approval, he knew. She worshipped Major Scully and would do whatever it took to avoid disappointing him.
So where did that leave Mulder? Major Scully hated him. Their politics and life choices couldn’t be further apart. They had been at loggerheads long before Dana ever arrived in Montana.
Mulder’s thoughts drifted back to the first time he saw her, standing at the rail of the Dauntless as it chugged up the Missouri on its way to Flatwillow. He’d been captivated by her beauty and beguiled by her brazen stare.
His regard for her grew tenfold when he was introduced to her a short time later. She’d boldly asked him to teach her a word or two of the Blackfoot language. He was spellbound as her lips and tongue worked to pronounce the long strings of unfamiliar vowels and consonants. The encounter had left him utterly enamored.
Then his attraction turned to passion, deep and unshakable, when they made love for the first time. She had been a virgin, yet she’d given herself to him, a man who was not her husband or even promised to her. Her generous gift humbled him and made him cherish her all the more. If such a thing were possible.
So here he was, besotted, smitten, love-struck, call it what you will. Desire consumed him. And he felt jealous as hell of the men Mrs. Scully foisted upon Dana with predictable regularity.
He also felt he may have become one of those despicable men who took advantage of women, using them to quell their sexual urges while giving nothing back. He neither supported Dana financially or provided her with steady protection. Even this home of hers was built by another suitor. In truth, he had little to offer beyond his unremarkable cabin in the hills and his promise of undying love.
He often found himself wishing she had become pregnant as a result of their first joining. A child would have secured a wedding vow and cemented their future. But no child had come and after that sole occasion, she insisted he sheath his prick with a rubber safe, one of Dr. Power's French Preventatives, prior to every act of intimacy. Meanwhile, the possibility of losing her to a seemingly endless parade of rivals grew with each passing dinner party at Major Scully’s. Mrs. Scully appeared bent on presenting Dana with a slew of upright military men, any one of whom would be more suitable and happy to steal her away from him. He feared the attraction of her parents’ approval, as well as that of society — not to mention the gentlemen themselves — might eventually prove persuasive and Dana would abandon him for a more normal life.
To prevent that eventuality, he longed for the assurance of his ring on her finger. Or, short of that, his child in her belly to provoke the same result. Dana as his wife with a child of their own would fulfill all of his dreams save one: finding his missing sister.
“Marry me, Scully, and put an end to your mother’s matchmaking.”
“Is that an adequate reason to get married?”
“Then marry me because I love you.”
“Will you cease loving me if I say no?”
He wouldn’t, of course. “You’ve bewitched me.”
She touched his wrist and stilled his hand. Taking the hairbrush from him, she stood to face him. “I love you, Mulder, but I prefer things as they are…for now. And you know why. I want you safe. And, frankly, I enjoy my current freedom.” She set the brush on the vanity.
“Do you honestly think it is my intention to chain you to the cookstove when we marry?”
She responded by walking away, toward the bed.
He took a demanding tone. “Woman, get downstairs and rustle up some grub.”
She unhooked and removed her corset and tossed it at him. It landed on his head.
He dragged it off, working hard not to smile. “Did I not make myself clear?”
Now it was she who appeared to struggle to keep a straight face.
Pouting, he tossed her corset toward the wardrobe, where it landed with a slap on the plank floor. “Unlike you, Scully, I didn’t have any dinner.”
She sat on the bed and began to remove her hose.
He licked his lips as she slid her right garter and stocking downward, exposing her pretty knee, the swell of her calf, the lovely turn of her ankle, and finally her delightful pink toes. His mouth went dry when the second garter and stocking made the same unhurried journey. She bunched the garments together and set them on the bed beside her. Now she wore nothing but her chemise, her drawers, and a smile. “Are you hungry, Mulder?”
“Yes.” He swallowed past the lump in his throat. “But not for food.”
“Then get over here and finish undressing me. I wish to be devoured.”
He did not need to be asked twice. Three long strides brought him to her. Running a finger up her arm and along the lace at her neckline, he said in a husky voice, “This needs to come off.”
“Then remove it from me.”
He took hold of her hands and drew her to her feet. They stood so close he could feel the warmth of her body waft over his skin and smell her subtle bouquet, a delightful fragrance that never ceased to arouse him. Taking hold of the hem of her chemise, he raised it up and over her head. She disentangled her arms from the garment, leaving her nude from the waist up. He fixed his eyes on the rosy tips of her breasts while he brought her chemise to his nose and inhaled. His cock ached beneath his buckskin trousers.
The chemise dropped to the floor when he reached to untie the closure on the fitted waistband of her bloomers. The garment was split at the crotch, so he could leave it on and still gain the access he craved, but he preferred to see her without any clothes at all.
The unfastened drawers dropped from her hips and fell in a bunched ring around her bare feet. She stepped out of them and returned to the bed, where she stretched out naked on her back.
Heaven have mercy, she was beautiful.
“Your turn,” she said, pointing a slender finger at him.
She watched without any embarrassment as he removed his fringed tunic in full view of her. He had to sit to unlace his knee-high moccasins, so went to the chair at the vanity. A knot in the laces made him curse and wish he’d worn his leather boots today. His frustration made her chuckle.
“Laughing at my misfortune, Scully?” The knot came free at last and he yanked off his footwear.
“Your misfortune is mine, too,” she said, kindly.
Her fingers played across her ivory skin, launching him to his feet to shuck his deer-skin trousers. Free of his clothes, he crossed to the bed, his fist wrapped tightly around his hardened cock to keep him from ejaculating too soon and ending their lovemaking before it had even begun.
She parted her knees, inviting him into her.
Sweet bliss! His eyes locked on the springy curls and rubescent crevice at the vee of her legs. The rose-petal lips of her sex glistened in the lamplight. He was the luckiest man on earth. He released his hold on his cock.
“The condoms are in the drawer of my vanity,” she reminded him.
Damn it. “You might’ve mentioned that while I was over there.”
“The location hasn’t changed since the last time you were here.”
He returned to the vanity and withdrew a rubber safe from its box in the drawer.
He waggled it at her. “You put it on me.”
“It would be my pleasure.”
No, Scully, the pleasure will be all mine, he thought as he returned to stand beside the bed and handed it to her.
She deftly rolled the condom over his prick, making him twitch with pleasure at her feather-light touch.
The mattress dipped beneath his added weight, its springs squeaking in protest, when he joined her on the bed. He held the condom in place with one hand while he jockeyed into position between her legs.
“Uh…” It struck him that he might be hurrying the act. "Are you ready or should I…?” He waved his free hand at her crotch.
“I have been ready for some time. Please, don’t keep me waiting any longer.”
“All right then. I'll waste no more time.”
She reached between them to help guide him into her. He soon discovered she was indeed ready. Slick and warm and inviting. With his cock half buried inside her, he stretched out on top of her and began to move his hips. His mouth found hers. His hands prowled across her flesh, clutching a breast, a thigh, a fistful of her hair. She moaned into his kiss. Her palms skimmed his ribs, kneaded his shoulders. Her pelvis rose up to meet his. When her legs wrapped tightly around his waist, he pushed deeply into her. He had never known pleasure such as this. So perfect because of her. Because of his overwhelming love for her.
Her soft moans grew more frequent, more intense, as he pumped against her. He broke their kiss to look down at her face. She stared back up at him, her sea-blue eyes eager, her skin flushed and glistening. Her breath came in quick pants.
Suddenly her movements stopped altogether and she held her breath. She was at the precipice of her ecstasy. He paused. Kept himself still. Then plowed hard into her. She gasped. Squeezed her eyes shut. He withdrew partway. Her nails dug at his back. He rammed her again. She groaned his name. Euphoria overtook her.
She was stunning like this. And he was entranced.
“I love you,” he said as he slammed into her. Faster. Until he lost his rhythm. He was past the point of stopping or slowing. His own release took over, numbing him to everything but their connection. He held onto her, fingers digging too deeply, teeth sinking into the flesh of her shoulder. His roar ricocheted around the room as his essence surged out of him. He rode out each blissful spasm. Then gathered her to him as the last pulsing sensations ebbed, leaving him too sensitive and softening inside her.
He wanted to remain there, lying on top her while their breathing returned to normal and their heartbeats slowed. But she was already reaching between them.
“The condom…,” she reminded him.
He pushed her hands away and took hold of himself, keeping the condom from slipping off while he withdrew from her depths. He rose from the bed and tossed it into the burning fire.
“I put out a towel,” she said as she drew the bed quilt over her naked body. “On the chair.”
He used it to clean himself, then searched the vanity drawer for another condom before returning to the bed.
“You’re insatiable,” she said when she saw it.
Her comment gave him pause. The wendigo was an insatiable creature, always hungry, driven by gluttony to kill. Never gratified or appeased. He didn’t much like the comparison and wished he hadn’t thought of it.
He climbed under the covers with her. “Is it considered Gluttony or Greed if what you crave isn’t food or money?”
“In your case, that would be Lust, also a vice. But since when have you worried about the Seven Deadly Sins?”
“A guy sometimes thinks about these things.” He palmed the condom.
“Hm.” She settled against him, one arm draping his chest, her head on his shoulder. “I think we could make the case that you already suffer from five out of the seven.”
“Hey!” He kissed the crown of her head. “Which five?”
“Let’s just say, to your credit, you’re not particularly prideful or wrathful.”
“I dunno. I can get pretty mad.” At any and all of the suitors chosen by Mrs. Scully, if they were to take liberties with Dana. Or even if they weren’t.
He spied a raised, red welt on her shoulder. The clear outline of his teeth. He patted it to sooth any pain he may have caused. “I’m sorry I hurt you.”
“You didn’t. It’s fine.”
The mark resembled the bites on Mr. Drummond. Again, his mind drifted back to the wendigo.
“May I go with you tomorrow when you look in on Mr. Drummond?”
“I prefer you didn’t, as you are quite skilled at distracting me.” She took the unused condom from him. He was momentarily mollified by her admitted attraction, until she added, “Besides, it’s best we aren’t seen together.”
He bristled at her comment, but nodded and kept to himself how very much her words broke his heart.
“Give me that condom,” he said and took it back from her. He would make love to her again, with the hope it would clear his mind of any thoughts about wendigos…or romantic rivals.
OFFICE OF THE FLATWILLOW PICAYUNE
THE NEXT MORNING
Mulder tied his horse to the post in front of the Picayune’s new, larger office, located on Flatwillow’s main thoroughfare. The town was bustling with foot traffic and wagons, horses and hammering. New buildings were going up. Old ones were expanding. The number of citizens had quadrupled since last autumn. More were on the way as new claims showed promise in the goldfields and businessmen arrived to get a share of the money by selling goods and services to the miners. Families were arriving, too, looking for cheap land. Flatwillow, lawless as ever, had transformed into a growing concern almost overnight. It was only a matter of time before it became civilized with churches and schools, banks and courthouses.
The Picayune’s front door was propped open with the cast iron cylinder from an old Lowe portable press. Mulder ducked his head out of habit as he entered, though the lintel here was a good foot higher than in the old place at Fort Culbertson. Inside, the oily smell of printer’s ink hit him full force.
“Hello, boys,” he greeted his three friends. “Nice digs.”
“Pardon the mess,” Frohike said, surrounded by unpacked boxes and trunks. “We’re just moving in.”
Byers and Langly used pry bars to uncrate a brand new Gordon Oscillating Press, which took up significant floorspace. The entire room was in disarray. Stacks of blank newsprint filled shelves at the back. Cans of printer’s ink were arranged in a pyramid off to one side. Drying racks hung from the ceiling’s high rafters.
“This new location offers numerous advantages over our old place.” Byers ran a palm lovingly over the press’s large, pristine drum.
“We’re closer to the action here. Less likely to miss important news.” Langly pulled nails from the crate’s side panels with a catspaw before tossing the wood into a pile.
“And check out the view.” Frohike nodded at the large front window.
Directly across the street, three scantily-clad women smoked cigarettes on an upper balcony of the three-story Golden Garter brothel. Two more whores chatted up a gaggle of prospectors on the street by the front door, which was painted a stimulating shade of red.
“You’ll save money on stereoscopic images of naked women.” Mulder perched on the edge of a desk. There was no chair, at least not one that was visible beneath the boxes and tarps and who-knew-what all.
“Where’s the fetching Dr. Scully today?” Frohike asked.
“Making a house call.” After an early morning round of sex, Dana had gone off to check on Mr. Drummond. Mulder had hoped that claiming her body again this morning would somehow mark her and ward off any potential rivals while she was out and about. Maybe they’d see his lovemaking in her expression and know she was taken and off limits. An absurd idea, he knew, but he couldn’t help wishing it were true. At her request, he waited until mid-morning before heading into town himself, to ensure their paths didn’t cross. He used the time to help Phillips split and stack firewood.
“Almost makes me want to come down with a disease,” Frohike said, sounding wistful.
“The place across the street could probably help with that.”
“And defeat the purpose.” Frohike went to his workbench beneath the window, where a tray of type waited to be organized. “Who’s the recipient of the house call, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Reece Drummond.” Mulder lifted a week-old edition of The Flatwillow Picayune from the desk and perused the headlines: US Congress Passes Civil Rights Act of 1866; First Daylight Bank Robbery in US History During Peacetime Takes Place in Liberty, Missouri; Discovery of Calaveras Skull in California Is Hoax. This last one made him frown.
“‘Rich Man’ Reese?” Frohike asked. “What’s wrong with him? He fall off his pile of money and break his neck?”
“No, he was mauled.” Mulder tossed the paper onto a pile of advertising placards and public notices. “Lost an arm and a leg.”
Frohike made a face of startled disgust. “Mauled by what?”
“Depends on who you ask.”
“I’m asking you.”
“Have you ever heard of a wendigo?”
“Go. A wendigo.”
“Isn’t that a cannibal spirit?” Byers asked, looking up from the press’s thick instruction manual.
“You win the prize, Mr. Byers.” Mulder slid from the desk to peer over Byers’ shoulder. The schematics looked complicated and the print very, very small. It was going to take the guys until next week to get the Gordon up and running. “A wendigo is a malevolent entity, unable to satiate its constant hunger no matter how many victims it consumes.”
“What makes you think Drummond was attacked by one of these entities and not a wild animal?”
“The bite marks looked more human than animal. And wendigos, unlike wild animals, are attracted to the darker aspects of human nature: gluttony, greed, excess.”
“That pretty much describes Drummond.” Langly dropped a palmful of bent nails into a jar. “Wendigos have human teeth?”
“The ones that start out human but later turn into wendigos after they’re attacked.”
“Like the victims of werewolves and vampires?” Frohike asked.
“Should we be picking out chintz curtains and ordering pickets for our front fence, Frohike?”
Frohike peered at Mulder over his glasses. “Hm. Maybe we can interview Mr. Drummond once he’s up and about.”
“Or Mrs. Drummond, if he’s not.” Byers gave up on the instruction manual and tossed it onto the press bed.
“Either way, it looks like we have a front page story for our next issue,” Langly said.
“Sorry to disappoint you, gentlemen.” Dana walked through the open front door carrying her medical kit. She addressed them all but pinned her stare on Mulder. “Mr. Drummond is gone. He disappeared in the night. Mr. Stevens, the groundskeeper, spotted him around midnight in the barn. When Stevens called out to him, Mr. Drummond ran off.”
“Ran off?” Mulder asked. “But…he had only one leg.”
“I’m quite aware,” she said. “But Mr. Stevens insists Drummond had both of his legs and both of his arms when he saw him last night.”
This could be the proof Mulder was looking for. As per Cree legend, Drummond might have regrown his limbs when he turned into a wendigo himself. Before Mulder could ask Dana if Stevens had mentioned whether or not Drummond looked like he’d lost some weight or grown any taller, a commotion on the street drew their attention. Prostitutes and their marks rushed out of the Golden Garter with frightened looks on their faces. Curious onlookers drew closer.
“Something’s going on.” Frohike grabbed a pad of paper and pencil, ready to investigate.
A blood-curdling scream brought him up short at the door.
The crowd backed away from the brothel and drew their guns.
A second scream followed the first.
Mulder drew his own pistol and pushed past Frohike. “Stay here!” he ordered before bolting across the street to the Golden Garter.
THE GOLDEN GARTER
LOT #10, FLATWILLOW
Mulder squeezed his way through the brothel’s crowded front entry, past frenzied men fastening up their trousers and women with their bare breasts in full view as they fled in panic.
“What’s happening?” Mulder asked a young woman in corset and petticoats when they crossed paths at the foot of the stairs.
“Madame’s dead,” she said before fleeing.
“There’s a monster upstairs!” a terrified man in long-johns shouted as he thundered down the front staircase and ran past Mulder, nearly knocking him over in his hurry to escape.
Mulder took the steps two at a time. He was momentarily stalled at the landing by three prostitutes and a man wearing nothing but a hat and boots. Mulder shouldered his way through them.
“Top floor!” one of the girls called out to him.
He mounted the second flight more quickly than the first as there was no tide of frightened patrons or frantic whores coming at him. Everyone had either escaped from the uppermost floor or they were dead or injured.
He paused to listen at the threshold of the open door at the top of the stairs. Hearing nothing, he edged into an opulent outer parlor. Furniture and bric-a-brac were strewn about the floor as if a whirlwind had swept through the sitting room. Scattered coins and paper money led him like a trail of breadcrumbs through several extravagantly decorated rooms deeper within the residence: an office, a dining room, a large bedroom overlooking the thoroughfare. All were in disarray: artwork torn from the walls, French furnishings with velvet upholstery overturned, gilt-framed mirrors and crystal chandeliers smashed to splinters.
In the bedroom, between an overturned wardrobe and a richly canopied bed, lay a middle-aged woman, the muscles of her legs eaten off, her abdomen and breasts gnawed away. Nothing of her arms remained except bone and gristle. A gold and diamond bracelet encircled one skeletal wrist. A sapphire choker ringed her torn neck. Her eyes bulged and her mouth gaped as if she’d seen the Devil himself.
Maybe she had. Bile slid up the back of Mulder’s throat.
“Oh my God.” Dana entered the room behind him and crossed to the body.
A broomstick-thin woman wearing a stained, pink corset and tattered sequined skirt followed her in. Face paint did little to mask her bone-tired features. Nineteen or twenty-nine, Mulder couldn’t begin to guess her age with any accuracy.
“Do you know who this is?” Mulder asked her, gesturing at the body.
“Yes, sir. That there’s Madame Sagarin. Owner of this establishment.”
“Do you, uh…work here, Miss?”
“Yes, sir. My name’s Violet. Violet Davies. Been here since the place opened two months ago.”
“Pleased to meet you Violet. My name is Mulder. This is Dr. Scully.”
“Don’t suppose there’s much you can do for her now, is there, Doc?”
“Madame Sagarin is beyond help, I’m afraid.” Dana said.
“No loss, far as I’m concerned. Not meaning to speak ill of the dead or anything, but that cocksuckin’ witch was as vile as they come.” Violet’s pale curls swung as she shook her head. “Starved us girls while she ate like a goddamn queen. Stole our wages…if or when she paid us at all. Made us do things no god-fearin’ person would do, live in conditions unfit for pigs or pagans, yet look at these here rooms of hers!”
Avarice was on full display everywhere Mulder looked. Sagarin would’ve been tempting prey for an entity like a wendigo, drawn to gluttony, greed, and excess.
“Violet, can you tell us what happened here?” he asked.
“Not sure zackly what happened but I can relate what I saw and heard.”
“That would be helpful.”
Violet plucked a rolled cigarette from a cut-glass dish on the bureau. “Mind if I smoke?”
“Not at all.”
She took a match from a silver box, struck it on the sole of her shoe, and lit her smoke. She inhaled deeply before continuing.
“I heard a scream. Knew it was comin’ from Madame’s apartment. We ain’t supposed to be up here but I came anyways. Case it was one of the girls in trouble. If I’d known it was her, I wouldn’t’ve bothered.”
Mulder nodded. “What did you see when you came up?”
Violet’s fingers shook as she drew again on her smoke. “B'fore I even got here to the bedroom, a…a…a…?” Her voice petered out as she searched for words to describe the thing she had witnessed.
“A what?” Mulder prompted.
“A spirit is the only way I can think to call it. A spirit came rushing past me, carrying a stink like the back shit-house. And a chill that made me go cold all over. The thing was a giant! A head taller than the tallest man I ever seen. And boney with its skin stretched tight and lips torn to shreds. ‘Bout stopped my heart. At the same time, it had a right familiar look to it, like…”
“Rich Man Reese.”
“Yes, sir. He comes in to see Madame sometimes. Has a certain aspect to his eyes. Like a prospector findin’ a fist-sized nugget in his pan. That spirit had the same fuckin’ look.” Violet dropped the stub of her cigarette on the floor and ground out the burning ember with the toe of her scuffed shoe.
“Where did the spirit go?”
“Hell if I know. I hightailed outta here.”
“So why did you come back?”
“To collect my pay!”
Violet scooped up some money from the floor and grabbed a half-eaten plate of food from the bureau before hurrying from the room.
Dana knelt beside the body and set her medical kit on the blood-stained carpet. “The amount of damage inflicted here is—”
“I was going to say staggering, but yes, that sums it up.”
“Still think we’re looking for a wolf? In a third-floor apartment?” Mulder crouched beside her. His stomach rolled at the gory condition of the corpse and what appeared to be more human bite marks. “Few Tails told me that the victims of wendigos, if they survive, can turn into wendigos themselves, able to regenerate missing limbs.”
“I hope you’re not suggesting that Reese Drummond transformed into a cannibalistic spirit, regrew his arm and his leg, and then hurried over here to kill and eat the madame of this brothel.”
“It does sound a bit absurd when you say it.” He offered her a contrite smile.
“Mulder, no one can regenerate amputated limbs.”
“Then how do you explain what Mr. Stevens saw?”
“He was drunk or nearsighted or dreaming or any number of other rational explanations.”
“Then what killed Madame Sagarin?” Mulder pinned Dana with an earnest stare. “When conventionality and science offer no answers, might we not turn to the extraordinary as a possibility?
“She obviously died of some sort of attack. What I find extraordinary is any notion the assailant was something other than an ordinary man or a beast.”
“Violet said the spirit looked like Drummond.”
“No, she said the attacker wore an expression similar to one she’d seen on Drummond.”
“Six of one, half a dozen of another.” He shrugged. “Too bad Rich Man Reece has mysteriously disappeared or we could ask him what he was doing an hour ago.”
“Doctor Scully?” Captain Doggett unexpectedly appeared at the door, hat in hand. “There’s been trouble at the goldfields. Several miners were attacked. At least one is in need of medical attention. Can you come, please?”
The goldfields were located several miles north of town. Dana had last visited there in February, when she’d come to set a compound leg fracture. Few prospectors worked their claims during Montana’s cold winter months. With water sources frozen and tents buried in snow, there was little to do but move into town and wait until spring. Only the hardiest or most desperate souls stayed on at camp, Dana’s unlucky patient included.
Three months later, the camp was transformed. Gone were the snow and ice. Where previously a few dozen rockers had dotted the hillsides, now more than a hundred long-toms carried water to riffle bars, where the heavy gold particles were caught and drained from their boxes at the end of each day. A thunderous stamp mill had been erected to crush gold-bearing quartz, its deafening crash echoing off mountainsides miles away. The number of prospectors had swelled to more than three hundred, all hoping to strike it rich and ensure an easy retirement back east.
A ramshackle collection of buildings served as a shared base camp near the claims. A detachment of solemn-faced soldiers and a mob of frightened miners crowded together in the community’s muddy thoroughfare. Captain Doggett aimed his horse toward them. Dana and Mulder followed.
Doggett called out to Lieutenant Pendrell, who stood among the soldiers. “Escort Dr. Scully to the injured man, Lieutenant,” he ordered.
Dana dismounted and removed her doctor’s bag from behind her saddle. She followed Pendrell into a spacious wood-framed structure overspread with canvas, ordinarily used as a public meeting place. Doggett and Mulder joined them inside. A lantern hung from a central post, casting a pale light over the injured man, who was laid out on a plank supported by saw horses. Two bodies draped with blankets were arranged side-by-side on the dirt floor a few yards away.
“Shall I have the dead removed?” Pendrell asked.
“Not yet, Lieutenant. I want to examine them after I see to this man,” Dana said, turning her attention to the injured prospector.
Doggett ordered Pendrell to stand guard outside the tent to keep any curious onlookers from crowding their way in. Pendrell’s disappointment was clear as he tore his gaze from Dana, but he did as he was told without comment.
Mulder wandered over to the two dead men and lifted a corner of the blanket on the nearest one. His hand rose to his nose and mouth. He let the blanket drop back into place and returned quickly to Dana’s side.
“You look a little green around the gills,” she said, hoping he wasn’t about to vomit or faint.
“It’ll be sometime next year before I get my appetite back.”
“Ten times worse than Madame Sagarin."
Dana found that hard to believe, but concentrated on treating her living patient for now. “What's your name, sir?”
“Will’m Cleaves, miss,” he hissed through clenched teeth. Fear as much as pain etched his blood-stained features.
“I’m Dr. Scully. My father’s name is William, too.” Dana patted the man’s thin arm. “I’ll treat you with the same care I’d give him.”
“Thank you, doc.”
As Dana began her examination, Mulder asked, “Mr. Cleaves, can you tell us what happened?”
The scrawny man nodded and began reciting the details in a rush. “Johnny, Ferland, and me was playin’ cards out by my sluice. Them two got into an argument. Ferland accused Johnny of cheatin’. Being there was a lot of gold on the table, tempers flared—” Cleaves gasped when Dana prodded his right shoulder. Both the shoulder and his arm were riddled with bite marks, the skin broken and oozing blood.
“Sorry, William. Please, go on.” Dana felt for broken ribs, probing as gently as possible.
“A chill came upon us, cold as a January blizzard,” Cleaves continued. His teeth chattered now as if the cold had never left him. “Creature came outta nowhere. Just skin and bones…but huge. Smelled like rotted meat. Went for Johnny first. Tore off his arms…then his legs. Johnny’s a big man, strong as a bull, too, but he come apart like he was made of straw—” Cleaves gulped for air. Tears filled his eyes.
“What happened next?” Mulder kept his tone low and calm.
“The thing began to chew on one of Johnny’s legs like it was eatin’ a damn turkey drumstick. Ferland and me, we went for our guns, tried shootin’ it. Hit it in the fuckin’ head, too, but…but it wouldn’t die! Came after us. Took Ferland next. I tried runnin’ but it was too quick. Caught me… Jesus, Jesus!” Cleaves’ mouth twisted in terror.
“But you’re still alive,” Mulder said. “Any idea why?”
“Dunno, mister. It…it didn’t seem so int’rested in me. When it went back to finish off Ferland and Johnny, I run for help.”
Doggett spoke up now. “Witnesses said the attacker was gone when they arrived at Mr. Cleaves’ plot. They brought him and the remains of John Davis and Ferland Petty in here.” Doggett nodded at the two covered corpses.
“Can you describe what the creature looked like, Mr. Cleaves?” Mulder asked.
“I…I really don’t wanna think about it no more.” He squeezed his eyes shut as if to block the memory.
“Please, William,” Dana urged. “It’s important. Was it a wolf?” She methodically checked his legs for broken bones and, thankfully, found none.
“Not a wolf, no, miss, weren’t no wolf. More like a man, though not a man neither. Too damn tall to be a man.”
“How tall?” Mulder asked.
“Ten feet if’n it was an inch.”
Dana exchanged glances with Mulder. She turned her attention back to Cleaves. “I’m going to clean and bandage your wounds, William. Some will require stitches. Would you like whiskey for your pain?”
“Yes’m. I’d take the whole bottle if you let me.”
“We’ll start with a swallow or two and see how you do.”
Once Cleaves’s wounds were sutured and dressed, Dana turned her attention to the two deceased prospectors. She went to the bodies and peeled back the blankets to inspect their injuries.
Dana had seen death before and didn’t shrink from its cruelty, whether it was disease or accident that claimed one man or war that had taken dozens. She was trained to face any atrocity inflicted upon the human body. But the abomination before her now was nothing for which anyone could prepare.
“Oh my God, Mulder. These bones.” She indicated the cracked long bones on the victims’ fleshless legs. “There’s no marrow.”
“Wendigos will suck out and consume bone marrow if they’re hungry enough.”
“That’s a legend, Mulder. A made-up myth.”
“One I happen to believe.”
“And I don’t. There are no such thing as wendigos.”
“You’re wrong, Scully. They exist.”
Doggett, who had been standing quietly by until now, spoke up to try to smooth things over. “If you ask me—”
“No one is asking you,” Dana said at the same time Mulder warned, “Stay out of it.”
Doggett raised his palms. “Apologies. Just trying to add another perspective.”
“We already have one too many.” Dana glared at Mulder.
“You’ve seen the evidence, Scully. Heard witness testimony.” Mulder frowned back, clearly frustrated. “What does it take to make you believe? For this thing to come up and bite you in the bustle?”
“Mr. Mulder!” Major Scully barked as he entered the tent, startling Dana and Mulder both. Red-faced and furious, he marched directly over to Mulder, stopping only when they stood toe-to-toe. “Mind how you address a lady! Particularly how you address my daughter!”
Mulder stood firm but his expression remained calm. Calmer than when he was arguing with Dana about wendigos, she noticed.
“Major Scully.” Mulder acknowledged Cap with a nod. “It’s been a while.”
“Not long enough.”
“For either of us.”
Dana thought it best to intervene before the two men said something that would lead to blows. “Father…Mulder…please—”
“This is men’s business, Dana,” Cap said. “Don’t insert yourself into our affairs.”
“I believe you’ve already put me in the middle, Father.” She didn’t want to fight with him but could not allow his dismissal to go unchallenged. She would give her opinion whether he wanted to hear it or not. “I wasn’t offended by Mr. Mulder’s comment. It was meant as a joke.”
“A poor one.” Cap’s disgust with Mulder was clear. “You have a strange sense of humor, sir.”
“Not the worst of my vices. As I’m sure you’ve heard.” Was Mulder purposely trying to provoke Cap?
“I’ve heard plenty, all of which only confirms my low opinion of you.” Cap looked Mulder up and down, taking in his buckskin clothes, beaded moccasins, and cocksure attitude. “I want you away from my daughter.”
“That, Major Scully, is up to her, not you.”
“Leave now, Mr. Mulder!” Cap’s eyes flashed. His fists balled. “Before I have you arrested.”
“Arrested for what?” Mulder straightened to his full height. It was clear he had no intention of relenting. Dana feared this confrontation was going to end very badly. “I have as much right to be here as anyone.”
“Don’t test my patience! I need no excuse to put you in irons.” It appeared Cap would never forgive Mulder for supplying guns to the Blackfoot. It was too grave an offense.
Mulder stood firm. “I’m not going anywhere unless your daughter asks me to.”
Before Dana could respond, her father said, “Dana is coming back to the fort with me, where she’ll be safe from whatever attacked these men.” His hand hovered above his pistol. “And safe from the likes of you as well.”
“Father, I’m not leaving.” Dana put as much steel into her voice as she was able. “My patient is here.”
Cap looked around the tent. His gaze settled on Cleaves, as if seeing him for the first time.
“Captain Doggett, transport the injured man to the fort’s infirmary,” Cap ordered.
“Yes, sir,” Doggett replied.
“No, Captain Doggett, I’ll be caring for him right here,” Dana insisted.
“Maybe Cleaves should go to the fort,” Mulder said, surprising her.
“For what reason?”
“In case he changes into the very thing that attacked him and these men.”
“What’s nonsense is this?” Cap demanded.
“Take him to the fort and restrain him, Scully. Please. If for no other reason than to humor me.”
Dana did not give credence to Mulder’s wendigo theory, but with both Cap and Mulder against her, she felt she had no choice but to acquiesce. Furious with Cap and none-too-pleased with Mulder, she capitulated. “Fine. Take Mr. Cleaves to the fort, Captain Doggett. I’ll ride along with you.”
She gathered up her bag. Before exiting the tent, she turned to Mulder, who remained inches from Cap. Both men looked angry enough to throw a punch. “I’ll meet up with you later, Mulder, once my patient is settled and under Corporal Beckett’s care.”
Cap’s brows rose and his mouth dropped open. This proposed rendezvous with Mulder clearly took him by surprise.
Before he could object, she turned on her heel and walked from the tent.
“Restrain Cleaves, Scully!” Mulder warned as she strode away.
Barred from the fort but wishing to be as close as possible to Dana, Mulder rode into town to while away some time at the Picayune. His mood was sour after his altercation with Dana’s father. Sadly, he was not now, nor would he ever be, an acceptable choice for Dana in the Major’s eyes. Mulder wished things could be different. Sometimes he wished he could be different. The sort of man who fit easily into society, not one whose odd ideas made him stand out. Or gave rise to mockery. “Crazy Fox” Mulder…he’d been hearing that for years.
He supposed he deserved the nickname. It’s not like he went out of his way to discourage the notion.
If not for Dana, he’d be content as he was, the rest of the world be damned. But her opinion mattered. And her unwillingness to accept his proposal of marriage weighed heavily on him. He couldn’t help but think she found him lacking in some respect…or in many respects. This unwelcome possibility brought feelings of dread and despair.
In deference to her, he left the goldfields without provoking her father any further, though he had been sorely tempted.
When Mulder entered the Picayune, Frohike, Byers, and Langly greeted him with smiles and an offer of whiskey. Maybe a drink with his friends was exactly what he needed to lift his spirits and get his mind off his troubles.
“Don’t mind if I do,” Mulder said as he settled into a chair. The office was still a shambles but the guys had made strides in organizing much of its former chaos.
Frohike lined up four shot glasses on his workbench, poured whiskey into each from a squat jug, then handed each man a drink.
“Good cheer and good health,” he toasted.
The rotgut burned Mulder from lips to belly, causing him to choke. It was like swallowing fire. “Did you make this with turpentine and printer’s ink, Frohike?”
“Hey! The Frohike men have been distilling spirits since 1780. It’s an old family recipe.” Frohike refilled their glasses.
“That explains a few things.” Mulder swallowed down the second glass, wincing as it seared its way past his throat and into his gullet. He waved off Frohike’s offer of a third round.
“Any more news about your wendigo?” Frohike asked, corking the jug. “We heard a rumor there was an attack out on the goldfields.”
“Two dead. One injured.”
“Details, Mulder. We’ve got space to fill in tomorrow’s paper.”
Mulder described the mutilated bodies and William Cleaves’s injuries. He left out his argument with Major Scully but added that Cleaves was being moved to the fort to recover there. Byers took notes, which he handed to Langly to typeset.
“Still convinced the attacker is a wendigo?” Frohike asked
“More than ever. But as you might guess, my opinion is in the minority.”
“Speaking of your opinion, would you mind looking over our story about Madame Sagarin?” Byers asked. “Let us know if we missed any pertinent details.” He passed the galley proof to Mulder.
CANNIBALISTIC MURDER OF MADAME DOTTIE SAGARIN!
Flatwillow, located in the Territory of Montana, was thrown into an extraordinary state of excitement in consequence of a report that a woman residing there had been murdered in her bedroom. The following are the particulars of the tragedy of Madame Dottie Sagarin, aged 44, who conducted business at the Golden Garter, distant only 50 yards from the offices of the Flatwillow Picayune. Marks of violence were on her person, but death was attributed by some witnesses to a malignant spirit which ate away the flesh of her limbs and torso, leaving behind only bones and her head.
The article went on for several more paragraphs and was accompanied by a photo of Madame Sagarin’s corpse. A very strange photo.
“Who’s your photographer?” Mulder asked. He held up the galley and tapped the image.
“Guy named Chuck Burks,” Frohike said. “Professional. Isn’t squeamish around dead people.”
“Did you notice this aura around the deceased’s missing arms and legs?” Mulder asked. A peculiar glow along the bones gave the appearance of phantom limbs.
“Weird, isn’t it? He calls it electrography. Says it allows him to photograph an organism’s coronal discharge.”
“I’d like to meet this Chuck Burks fellow.”
“He plays cribbage with us every Friday night. Sometimes brings his revolving stereoscope. Stop in some time.”
“Thanks. I think I w—”
The front door opened, setting a brass bell tinkling. Dana entered and spotted Mulder. “I thought I might find you here.” She nodded to the others. “Gentlemen.”
“Dr. Scully.” They gave their hat brims an imaginary tip, although they weren’t actually wearing hats.
“How’s Mr. Cleaves?” Mulder rose from the chair. “Did you restrain him?”
“Yes. Against my better judgement. Corporal Beckett is watching over him.”
“I still don’t believe it’s necessary.”
“But you did it anyway.” For me, he thought but didn’t say. It astonished him how much it meant to him that she followed his advice even when she disagreed with him. Trust was a gift he seldom received. Coming from her, it was everything.
“Let’s go home, Mulder,” she murmured, her fingers seeking his.
She must be exhausted, he thought, for her to reach for his hand in public. Her words, too, were a surprise, implying they lived together. She didn’t say, “take me home,” she said, “let’s go home,” as in “together,” like it happened all the time. Which it did, but Frohike, Byers, and Langly didn’t know that. Given their sudden silence and their startled stares, they did now.
Rather than disabuse them of the idea, he grasped her hand and walked her out of the Picayune.
DANA SCULLY'S RESIDENCE
Water heated in kettles on the kitchen’s cookstove, sending curls of steam toward the ceiling beams. Mulder set up Dana’s copper bain bateau tub in the center of the room. Usually, he bathed in the icy stream by his mountain cabin. A warm indoor bath was a luxury. Dana lined the tub with a linen sheet before Mulder poured in bucket after bucket of water.
Dana dipped her fingers below the water’s surface to test its temperature. “Needs more hot.”
“You don’t ascribe to the popular opinion that hot baths are debilitating and can lead to insanity?” He emptied another kettle of steaming water into the tub.
“There’s rarely much science behind popular opinion.” Dana added scented oil to the bath water, filling the room with the fragrance of lavender. She placed a towel, a bar of perfumed soap, and a small enamel basin filled with water on a chair beside the tub, then arranged Mulder’s shaving kit on the sideboard: straight razor, bone-handled brush, tin cup, and Pears soap. Two oil lamps cast golden-hued light across the walls and floor.
“Ready?” he asked.
“You first. I’ll shampoo your hair and give you a shave.”
Mulder ran his palm over his bristly chin. “It would be nice to get rid of this.”
“Indeed. Kissing you is like kissing a bale of hay.” She smiled.
“I didn’t hear you object last night.”
He stripped off his moccasins and buckskins, and left them in a pile on the floor before stepping into the tub. He slowly lowered himself into the hot water. It felt wonderful, prickling his skin with its warmth. He breathed a contented sigh when he was submerged to his armpits. Water lapped around his upraised knees.
“Lean forward,” Dana said, tapping his shoulder. When he did as she asked, she poured a pitcher of warm water over his head.
His hair had grown back since she’d cut it off last August to treat him for a concussion. Sargeant Phillips, who at the time occupied the bed next to him in the infirmary, assured him he didn’t look too bad, “kinda like a baby porkypine.”
He’d had a vision back then, before he came to and found his hair chopped off. In his unconscious state, he wandered through a mysterious landscape, a fantastical realm between life and death. His old friend Red Crow was there, although he had died two days earlier. Red Crow told Mulder that a Waken — a person of unusual power and wisdom — was praying for his return.
“I believe your Earth Walk is not yet finished, Issohko,” Red Crow said. “You are meant to join with another. The two of you will be as one mind, one prayer. Together you will discover wondrous things.”
Dana was the Waken who brought Mulder back from the brink of death, he was certain. They were fated to be together. Soulmates, paired for eternity. She would scoff at such a notion, but he believed such things were possible. She was his proof.
He groaned with pleasure as she lathered his hair with her perfumed soap, her fingernails digging gently into his scalp. She did a thorough job but all too soon, she was rinsing his head with another pitcher of water. She handed him a towel to wipe soap from his eyes.
“Now lean back,” she urged. “Chin up.”
He positioned his back comfortably against the curve of the tub while she sudsed his shaving brush in its cup. Index finger to his chin, she tilted his head back. She used circular motions to soap his whiskers. The soap smelled mildly spicy and fresh, with a hint of thyme. She set aside the cup and brush to strop the razor.
“Trust me?” she asked.
Standing behind him, she drew the cold, sharp blade up his neck and over his chin. Each stroke made a rasping sound as she scraped his jaw clean. She swished the razor in the basin before taking another long, slow swipe at his skin. Neck, jaw, cheeks, upper lip…she carefully navigated the curves of his face. She left behind no nicks, no abrasions. When finished, she wiped his face with a towel, then rubbed her own smooth cheek against his, testing for rough spots.
“Mmm,” she purred. “Much better.”
He slipped a hand behind her neck to draw her to him. Then he kissed her until they were both left breathless.
“Join me in the tub,” he whispered.
Never one to act coy, she began to undress. He tried to remember to breathe as she unbuttoned buttons and unhooked fasteners. Boots, belt, skirt, and blouse were removed, folded, and set aside. Her unwieldy crinoline stood practically on its own in a corner. Stockings, garters, and corset joined the pile. Finally, finally she shed her chemisette and under drawers, leaving her completely, exquisitely naked. Her smooth skin shone like polished ivory in the lamplight. Her nipples puckered in the room’s cool air. Her breasts jiggled and swayed in the most delightful way when she stepped over the rim of the tub. She turned her back to him, presenting him with a stunning view of her creamy buttocks as she lowered herself between his legs. She settled against his chest.
It was a tight squeeze and the water threatened to spill over the rim of the tub. He threaded his arms beneath hers and around her slim waist. Her head lolled against his collarbone.
“Comfortable?” he asked.
“Very.” She placed the bar of soap into his palm. “Wash my back?”
“How about I start with your front?”
He steered the bar of soap over her belly and breasts, delighting in the slippery, satiny feel of her skin, the pliancy of her form. Down her arms, up her thighs. When he grazed her sex, she moaned with obvious contentment. He wanted to take her, right there in the tub. His engorged cock pressed against the small of her back, the sensation nearly overwhelming him. His need for her seemed limitless. No matter how many times he made love to her, he was always left wanting more. An insatiable craving…
It occurred to him again that this seemingly unquenchable desire for Dana was not so different from the wendigo’s rapacious cravings for food. The more it ate, the hungrier it became. The comparison caused his ardor to fade and his erection to flag.
Dana must’ve noticed. She glanced at him over her shoulder, concern evident in her expression. “What is it, Mulder?”
“I apologize. My mind is wandering.”
Compare his lust for her to the wendigo’s greed? He couldn’t. How would that make her feel? Instead he said, “I was just thinking about something Few Tails told me…about how to kill a wendigo.”
“You’re thinking about that now?”
“Well…yes. I’m sorry.”
She huffed and faced forward, away from him. After a few moments of silence, she said, “So tell me. How does one kill a wendigo?”
“We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
“No, now that you’ve brought it up, my mind is wandering, too. Perhaps if we discuss it, we can then move on to something more pleasant.”
That was his hope, too. “Did I tell you a wendigo’s heart is made of ice?”
“You may have. How is it important?”
“It’s important because the only way to kill a wendigo is to cut out its icy heart and melt or burn it in a fire.”
“That’s interesting, Mulder. Are we now finished with the subject? Can we discuss something else?” She pinched his thigh.
He chuckled and wrapped his arms around her. He was struck again by how much he loved her.
“Marry me, Scully. Please?”
She shook her head. “It’s not safe.”
“Because of your father.”
“He doesn’t just dislike you, Mulder, he believes you’re a traitor. If provoked, he’d see you hanged.”
“I’ve told you, I won’t stop providing assistance to the Blackfoot.”
“I’m not asking you to.”
“What are you asking?”
“For us to continue as we are…to keep you alive.”
“I don’t want to continue as we are. I want more. I want us to marry and have children and live our life together in the open.” He pressed his lips to her ear. “I’m not afraid of your father. But I am afraid your reason for turning me down may go beyond a concern for my safety. What is it, Scully? Why are you so hesitant?”
She took hold of his hands and dovetailed her fingers with his. “It’s true, there is another reason, though it does not negate the first.”
“I’ve touched on it before. Perhaps you’ve forgotten or it didn’t seem important.”
He forgot nothing, they both knew. So maybe he hadn’t been listening. Really listening. “If it’s important to you, it’s important to me. Tell me what has you concerned.”
She turned to look up at him. “I’ll lose my position as the fort’s doctor if I marry.”
“But why? Surely you’ve proven your worth to your father and the US Army.”
“You know that doesn’t matter. Society allows women to rule only in the domestic arena, whereas men control the public sphere. I’ll be relegated to caring for my husband, my home, and any future children when I marry. And that is all I’ll be allowed to do.”
“You think I’d insist you quit the job you love?”
“Not you specifically, Mulder. Society and the law in tandem will do that. I’ll not be able to keep my own wages or property, enter into any contracts, or work outside of my home. New York's Married Women's Property Act does not apply to US territories, so until Montana becomes a state and ratifies the legislation here, I will be legally subordinate to my husband. And as I’m also not allowed to vote, I cannot cast a ballot to change the existing laws!” She absently traced his forearms with a feather-light touch. “As an unmarried woman, my rights are far greater than they will become should I marry. That is the other reason I have declined your proposals. I am not saying no to your love or even saying that I think you wish to hobble my ambitions and make me less free. It is society at large that will do that. Mulder, I do not wish freedom from you; I wish freedom for myself.”
“But it’s m—” Don’t say it, he warned himself.
Thinking back, he realized she had brought up the topic before. Just yesterday, in fact. I love you, Mulder, but I prefer things as they are…for now. And you know why. I want you safe. And, frankly, I enjoy my current freedom. Selfishly, he hadn’t asked her to elaborate. Instead, he’d made a joke about it.
He’d been thinking only about his own desires and not how a change to the status quo might affect her.
“You’re right, of course,” he said now. “The situation is unfair. I do see it. But is there no solution? No way to compromise? I love you, Scully, and want us to be together. To raise a family.”
“As do I. I want those things, too. Some day. But I love being a doctor. I’ve worked hard for it. And we are together already, are we not?”
“Yes, but…not in the eyes of the law or society or your family. We aren’t free to express our love outside these walls.” He rested his chin on her shoulder and pressed his ear against her cheek. “We could move to New York,” he suggested.
“We could. Or…”
“How do you feel about long engagements?”
He lifted his head. “I have no objection to long engagements.”
“Then I suggest we become engaged. Since I’d still be unmarried, I’d be able to retain my position as the fort’s doctor.”
“Perfect! Oh, but…uh…what about your father?”
“I’ll impress upon him that it isn’t acceptable to kill my betrothed.”
“That would be helpful.” Would she succeed? It seemed unlikely. She’d been trying for months and hadn’t changed his mind yet. “And your brother Bill? You think you can convince him, too?”
He wasn’t so sure but was willing to take the chance. “No more sneaking around? No more invitations from your mother to meet potential suitors?”
“As your fiancée, I’ll no longer be available. And we can kiss in the middle of the thoroughfare if we want.”
“In that case…” In a great slosh of water, Mulder climbed from the tub. He crossed the room to his clothes, dripping the entire way.
“Mulder, what are you doing?”
He rummaged through the pile for his buckskin trousers. Finding them, he dug into the pocket. Yes, there it was, the ring he’d purchased months ago. A slim 22-carat gold band etched with a simple filigree design. It sparkled despite its lack of gemstones. He hoped with all his heart she would like it. He palmed it and returned to her.
He suddenly felt very nervous. He’d proposed numerous times but this time was different, it seemed. More consequential somehow. He’d never been closer to winning her acceptance.
With great trepidation, he lowered himself to one knee beside the tub and reached for her hand. He must look ridiculous, proposing to her while completely naked. Not at all what he’d imagined when planning this moment. But it seemed fitting, somehow, since he was baring his soul while offering his heart. She sat in the steamy bath, blinking at him in wonder.
“Dana Katherine Scully…” What should he say? Why hadn’t he rehearsed something? “Uh, I have little to offer you, other than my love…and my promise to stand by you always…and to try my utmost to make you happy—” This wasn’t going at all the way he’d hoped. He’d wanted to sound confident, and sincere, and, hell, persuasive. “It is my greatest hope you’ll marry me. Scully, please, do me the honor of consenting to become my wife…at some point…in the future…the distant future, if that’s what you choose.”
Deciding it might be best to just shut up and offer her the ring, he held it up, pinched tightly between thumb and forefinger. It would be just his luck to drop it in the tub.
“When did you get that?” she asked, eyes bright with tears.
“Last August. I had a jeweler in Gallatin make it especially for you.”
“August—? But we had just…for the first time…”
He nodded. “So, what’s your answer? Will you marry me?”
“I will. Yes. I accept your proposal.” She smiled, looking uncharacteristically shy. She offered him her hand and he slipped the ring over her dainty finger. “But just so you know, I’ve been yours and yours alone since the first time you made love to me in your cabin. You captured my heart then and there, and my feelings for you have never wavered.”
“I think I did know that.” He kissed her knuckles. Her ring glittered in the lamplight. “But now everyone will know your feelings for me, too.”
“And that’s important to you?”
“It is. I’ve never been good at sharing. And if that makes me possessive or selfish or greedy, so be it.” He stood. “Isn’t it important to you?”
“Very much so.”
“In that case…”
He scooped her up, one arm behind her back, the other beneath her knees, and lifted her from the tub, making her laugh. How he loved to hear her laugh! She was so compact, it seemed she weighed nothing in his arms. He rocked her as he carried her, because he could and because it made her smile. A trail of water marked their path from the kitchen, down the hall, and up the stairs to the bedroom.
Tonight was for them alone. Tomorrow, they would face her parents.
THE NEXT MORNING
To hell with propriety, Dana had told Charlie when she first arrived in Flatwillow last August. She’d meant it and had since made her life’s choices based on it. She thought she was being a strong, independent woman, living on her own, holding down a job, purchasing her own home. Not to mention keeping company with the man she loved and with whom she shared intimacies outside the bond of marriage. But what did it say about her that she had been content to conduct their love affair in the shadows? She knew long ago that she intended to spend the rest of her life with this man. She couldn’t imagine being with anyone else. But her insistence on secrecy had clearly been hurting him, she saw now. It had hurt her, too.
It was time for a change. She would tell her mother and father the truth about her feelings for Mulder. If Cap threatened him, they would leave Flatwillow and go somewhere he would be safe. But they would no longer hide their love for one another.
She and Mulder rode together to the fort. Earlier, she’d argued against him coming along, but he adamantly refused to stay behind to let her meet with her parents alone. She believed the conversation would go smoother without him there. His very presence was likely to provoke Cap. But in the end, she relented. For better or worse, they were in this together.
Two armed sentries guarded Fort Culbertson’s main gate, which was propped open as was customary during daylight hours. The guards moved to block the entrance when Dana and Mulder drew near.
“Is there a problem?” Dana asked from atop her horse.
“He is the problem,” said the older of the two guards, thrusting his whiskered chin at Mulder.
Dana kept her tone as pleasant as possible. “Let us pass, Private. We have business inside the fort.”
“You’re welcome to come in, Dr. Scully, but he ain’t.”
“We’re here to talk with Major Scully,” she said.
“It’s the Major who gave orders to keep him out.” The private leveled his rifle at Mulder. “Says he’s an enemy of the US Army.”
Dana dismounted and walked up to the older man, placing herself directly in his line of fire, the barrel of his rifle mere inches from her chest. “What’s your name, Private?”
The gun wavered. He lowered it. “Canary, miss.”
“Private Canary, if you do not allow Mr. Mulder and me to proceed with our mission, I must insist you fetch Major Scully here immediately. I only hope you do not interrupt his morning routine as there is nothing that irritates him more.”
The guards exchanged nervous glances. They conferred in whispers. Finally, the younger of the two said, “Wait here, miss, please. I’ll be back in two shakes.”
Canary stayed behind to ensure the Major’s orders were not defied. Mulder remained seated on his horse. The two men watched each other without speaking. Mosquitos gathered in clouds around their heads, despite the morning chill. Beyond the fourteen-foot-high stockade, hammers clattered and saws buzzed as teams of carpenters constructed new living quarters for the incoming troops.
The younger guard returned a few minutes later accompanied by Captain Doggett, not Dana’s father.
Doggett’s eyes widened when he caught sight of Mulder’s pinto. He cast a questioning glance at Dana, making her blush. It was clear he recognized the horse and remembered where he’d seen it before. But he made no mention of it or her deception, for which she was grateful.
“Captain Doggett, I’m glad you’re here to straighten out this situation,” she said. “Mr. Mulder and I would like to be let into the fort. We need to speak to my father.”
Doggett studied Mulder. Scratched at his chin. Peered back at the fort. “I can’t go against Major Scully’s direct orders, Dr. Scully. Maybe there’s a message I could relay to him on your behalf?”
“Our business is personal, Captain. Please, let us in or send for my father.”
Doggett nodded and turned to the older sentry. “Private Canary, summon the Major. Immediately.”
“Yes, sir!” The private looked none-too-happy to be charged with this errand but did as he was told.
Again, they waited. Dana swatted at flies. Doggett appeared unbothered by the biting insects, standing stiff and expressionless, one gloved hand resting lightly on his saber’s pommel. Mulder remained on his horse. A muscle jittered along his jaw, the only sign he felt ill at ease.
At last, Cap approached, looking annoyed and walking at a fast clip. His expression transformed to rage when he spotted Fox Mulder. Cap targeted him with an outstretched finger. “You are not welcome here, Mr. Mulder! Turn your horse around and go.”
Defying her father’s order, Mulder dismounted his horse and came to stand beside Dana.
“Father, we have something to tell you.” Dana fought her nerves. She was determined to express her feelings for Mulder, her trepidation be damned. It was long past time that Cap learned the truth. “I prefer we have this conversation in private, not in front of an audience. May we please go inside.”
“Absolutely not. That man will not set one foot inside my fort. You can say whatever you’ve come to say right here.”
She fidgeted with the engagement ring on her finger. The movement caught Cap’s attention.
“What’s this?” he asked, his shock obvious.
“I’ve asked Dana to marry me,” Mulder said, taking hold of her hand, “and she’s accepted.”
Cap wagged his head, refusing to believe this news. “I’ll see you dead first, sir! You had no right to propose to my daughter without first talking to me and getting my approval.”
“Father, I’m no longer a child,” Dana said. “I reached the age of legal majority almost two years ago and can make decisions for myself.”
Cap looked thunderstruck. He targeted Mulder with a hate-filled stare. “Captain Doggett,” he said without taking his eyes off Mulder, “escort this man away from the fort.”
“Yes, sir.” Doggett reached for Mulder’s elbow.
“Let go of me!” Mulder jerked his arm away.
Cap drew closer to Mulder, close enough to throw a punch and connect. Dana had never seen him so angry. “You’ve repeatedly put my men at risk. Now, you put my daughter at risk. I’ll see you hanged as a traitor if you don’t leave this instant.”
A shout from inside the fort cut her off. “Major Scully! Doctor Scully!” It was Corporal Beckett, running toward them, waving his arms. “Come quickly! It’s William Cleaves!”
The warning set them in motion. All but the two guards sprinted toward the infirmary, leaving the horses at the gate.
“What is it, Corporal?” Dana asked as she tried to keep up with the men, her skirts slowing her down. “What’s happened?”
“Cleaves…he’s…changing…,” Beckett said, out of breath, his chest heaving as he bounded up the infirmary’s front steps behind the others.
“Dana, stay back!” Cap ordered from the doorway.
“Do as he says,” Mulder said, unexpectedly agreeing with Cap. The two men disappeared inside. Doggett followed on their heels.
Dana looked to Beckett.
“We should stay out here,” he urged.
“Do as you please, Corporal, but I plan to see to our patient.”
Dana stepped inside. Beckett trailed after her, his nerves clearly frayed. The other men were fanned out around Cleaves, who lay tethered by leather straps on his wrists and ankles to a bed on the far side of the ward. He was the only patient in the infirmary.
The room felt icy cold, despite a fire that burned in the cast iron wood stove. An unseasonal frost coated the insides of the windows, snow white and so thick it blocked the view to the outdoors. All the sashes were closed tight, yet a whirlwind spun through the room, tossing blankets from the beds and causing Dana’s skirts to flap and billow. It carried a foul stench, worse than the most decayed corpses Dana had dissected in medical school.
Cleaves writhed in his bed. An inhuman cry burbled up from his throat. His lips stretched hideously around his gaping mouth until the flesh split and bled. His eyes were sunken deeply into their sockets. Most startling of all was the way his torso and limbs lengthened and thinned, increasing his height to such a degree, he no longer fit in the bed. The restraints on his ankles snapped, freeing his legs. He thrashed wildly, trying to break the ties on his wrists. The left gave way. He swung his feet to the floor. Took several lurching steps toward the shocked onlookers, dragging the bed with him. It scraped loudly across the wooden planks. His head touched the ceiling. He targeted Cap with dark, malevolent eyes.
Cap drew his pistol. “Stand down!” he ordered.
The ghoulish creature let loose an ear-splitting roar. It gnashed its teeth and pawed wildly at the air with its free hand as it continued its slow march across the ward, the bed weighing it down but not stopping it. It no longer resembled the young prospector William Cleaves. It didn’t look human at all with its ash-gray skin and rawboned frame and animal-like stare.
It roared again and swung its restrained arm. The bed lifted off the ground and soared through the air in a great arc until it broke free. It sailed across the room and clipped Doggett in the shoulder, knocking him to his knees before it landed with a crash against the wood stove.
Cap fired his pistol. The bullet struck Cleaves in the chest. It should’ve been a fatal blow but it did little more than knock Cleaves back a step. When he began to advance again, Cap fired at his head. The round struck Cleaves between the eyes, boring a dime-sized hole in his skull. Rather than crumpling to the floor, the creature remained upright. It targeted Cap with glowing, red eyes. Doggett regained his footing. Aimed his pistol. Fired. The bullet struck the monster, which glanced his way, remarkably unharmed. It bellowed an inhuman warning.
“Guns won’t kill it!” Mulder shouted.
“Then how do we stop it?” Doggett ducked when a drinking glass and a pitcher of water hurtled through the air seemingly on their own. They smashed in a spray of glass and water against a far wall.
A dozen wood-frame beds skated in wide circles around the floor, finally crashing into one another. Dana gasped when Cleaves howled and took two long strides toward her father.
“Use your swords!” Mulder yelled. “Cut off its limbs or head!”
Cap and Doggett both drew their sabers. Cap swung as Cleaves closed in on him, taking aim at his neck. His blade sliced through skin and bone, decapitating the creature in one stroke. The head hit the floor with a stomach-churning thud, bounced twice, and rolled across the room. It came to a stop at Dana’s feet, its unblinking eyes staring up at her.
To her surprise, the headless body remained standing. She watched in horror and disbelief as a new head began to grow out of its open neck.
“Oh my god,” she gasped.
The new head pushed upward out of the torso, the flesh raw, the features more fearsome than before. Its eyes burned with hate. Its cavernous mouth opened wide. Crooked teeth gleamed behind tattered and bloody lips.
“Mr. Cleaves? William?” Dana tried to appeal to the man’s human side.
It took a halting step in her direction.
“Protect her!” Mulder ordered the men.
Doggett, Cap, and Mulder positioned themselves between Dana and creature. Beckett shoved her behind him, though he had no weapon or other means to defend himself or her. Stymied, the creature turned its attention back to Cap. With the broad swipe of its arm, it batted the sword from Cap’s hand. Another wallop sent him sprawling. He landed in a heap just inches from the hot wood stove.
Mulder wasted no time. He grabbed Cap’s sword from the floor. With a two-handed swing, he took the creature out at the knees. Legless, it toppled.
But even this did not stop it. It dragged itself along the floor by its hands at an astonishing speed. It quickly pulled itself within inches of Cap. It grabbed the ankle of his spit-shined boot. Cap looked terrified. He tried to pull away but the creature held on.
“Father!” Dana cried out.
“Help me!” Cap pleaded.
Mulder didn’t hesitate. He brought the sword down on the creature’s arm, severing it at the elbow and freeing Cap from its grasp. The monster hissed in pain. It rolled onto its back to face Mulder. When Mulder brought down the sword again, it grabbed the blade in midair. Blood poured from its curled fingers. It wrenched the saber away from Mulder and threw it across the room. The spinning blade whirled toward Dana. Beckett raised an arm to deflect it. It sliced his coat sleeve but he managed to knock it away. It lodged point-first in the floorboards.
Yanking the knife from its sheath on his belt, Mulder leapt onto the creature’s torso. It bucked and rolled, trying to dislodge him. Mulder hung on, as if riding a wild stallion. It flailed its remaining arm at Mulder’s head. Struck him hard in the jaw. Blood sprayed from the creature’s wounded palm. It swung again and walloped Mulder in the temple. Mulder grunted in pain.
With no forethought, Dana started toward him to help but was halted when Beckett grabbed her around the waist and held her where she stood.
“Let me go!” She struggled to free herself.
“Don’t,” he warned.
She watched Mulder seize the creature’s wrist mid-swing to stop its rain of blows. He managed to right himself on its writhing torso. Holding the creature’s arm tightly in his left fist, he used his right to plunge his knife’s blade into its chest. A powerful downward thrust. Bones cracked. Blood gushed from the wound. The creature screeched in anger and agony. The cold in the room became more intense. Mulder hacked deeper. Cut a gaping hole into the creature. To Dana’s astonishment, a crystalline heart beat beneath its shattered breastbone.
“Open the wood stove!” Mulder shouted to her.
Beckett released her and she hurried to do as Mulder asked.
The creature gnashed its teeth, twisted and thrashed. Mulder chiseled around its heart. It fell still when he lifted the glittering organ from its ribcage. Mulder rose on quaking legs and carried the heart to the stove, where he tossed it into the fire. It hissed and spat as the ice melted. The room fell silent when it burned away to nothing.
The four men looked as shocked as Dana felt. Her bafflement became even greater when she turned her attention back to the body and saw it was William Cleaves who lay dead on the floor, as whole as he had been just yesterday. The blood, the severed limbs, and the decapitated head were gone as if they had never existed. Only the clutter and disorganization of the room and Beckett’s torn coat sleeve hinted that anything unusual had ever happened here.
TWO MONTHS LATER
WEDNESDAY, JULY 4, 1866
Blue skies and bright sunshine brought welcome warmth to Flatwillow. Ice no longer clung to the banks of the Missouri. Snow and frost had melted away weeks ago from the lowland hills and vast prairies to the east. Only the highest of the Rockies’ saw-toothed peaks remained cloaked in white.
Dockside, the Lady Lynne sat moored to wooden pilings, its giant paddlewheel at rest. Its crew scurried to unload passengers and cargo. Masses of red, white, and blue bunting decorated the rails to celebrate the first Independence Day since the return of soldiers from the Civil War. The ship's flag billowed on the breeze, its stars and stripes proclaiming the collective relief of a recently unified country.
Dana and Mulder waited on the dock for Melissa to disembark after her months-long journey from France to Flatwillow. Dana hadn’t seen her sister in more than four years and was impatient to be reunited.
“Is that her?” Mulder pointed to a young woman waving from the upper deck.
“Yes!” Joy welled up in Dana. “Missy!” she hollered and waved back, rising up on her toes, overflowing with excitement. “Missy!”
“I’ll be right down!” Melissa shouted back, her voice barely carrying above the tumult of soldiers, prospectors, and families milling about the ship’s decks and filing down the gangway.
Minutes later, Melissa was hurrying toward them, dodging fellow passengers, arms flung wide. She plowed into Dana’s embrace. The two women held onto each other as if for dear life. Tears streamed down both their faces. Mulder looked on, waiting patiently through their reunion.
“It’s you, it’s really you!” Dana said, pulling back to get a better look at her sister.
There was an air of maturity about Melissa that hadn’t been there the last time they’d been together, a worldliness that must’ve come from traveling abroad on her own. Yet she still had the same generous smile and mischievous twinkle to her eyes.
“Yes, I’m here at last! Oh, Dana, it’s so good to see you!”
“I can scarcely believe it. Look at you!” Dana said, taking in Melissa’s chic coiffure and fashionable ensemble. The shape of her skirts was new, flatter in the front, with greater fullness in the back, the fabric off-white with blue vertical stripes, accented with contrasting trimmings. A matching blue velvet ribbon decorated her promenade bonnet. A pretty amethyst crystal brooch glittered at her neckline. “So stylish!”
“Dana, you would love the shops in Paris! You must go.”
Missy had always enjoyed dressing up. Dana, on the other hand, had never been overly concerned about her wardrobe. She felt no need to travel across the Atlantic to buy the latest styles. Her clothes needed to be practical, both durable and easy to clean, given her line of work. She appreciated Missy’s taste but truly did not envy her pretty clothes.
Mulder cleared his throat, drawing their attention.
“Missy, I’d like you to meet Fox Mulder, my fiancé.” Dana was still getting used to introducing him that way. It felt strange to say, yet filled her with immense pride and love.
He tipped his top hat. “Pleased to meet you, Miss Scully.” He looked especially handsome today, dressed in jacket and waistcoat, pressed trousers, and silk cravat for dinner at her parents’.
Melissa took hold of both his hands. “My future brother-in-law! It’s very nice to meet you at last. Dana has told me so much about you in her letters, Mr. Mulder.”
Mulder glanced at Dana, a slightly worried expression on his face.
“All glowing,” Dana rushed to say.
“Of course.” Mulder returned his attention to Melissa. “Please, call me Mulder.”
“All right. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Mulder. And you must call me Melissa.” She released his hands and smiled up at him. “Given what Dana has written about you, I believe we may be in competition.”
“In what way?”
“We are both in the running for the title of ‘black sheep of the family.’”
“Ah, yes.” He returned her smile and gave a nod. “And here I was, hoping your arrival would take the heat off me entirely.”
“It might still. There’s plenty about me that will be judged harshly by my parents. The fact that I traveled here unchaperoned for one.” She gave a wink to Dana but continued speaking to Mulder. “I suspect my arrival will give you a break from my parents’ scrutiny.”
“That would be most welcome.”
“Let’s make a pact. If you come under fire, I’ll draw Father’s attention and take his slings and arrows for a time. Then you can step in and do the same for me when it looks as if I’m about to be mortally wounded.”
“A deal, though in my case, it’s not a matter of if, but when.”
“Mulder exaggerates,” Dana cut in. “A lot has changed since he saved Father’s life.”
“And yours, too, I hear,” Melissa said.
“And mine, too,” Dana agreed. “Mulder was really quite heroic.”
“Dana is biased, I’m afraid.” He appeared embarrassed by the attention. "I truly did very little.”
“If it was enough to earn Father’s respect, it must’ve been impressive indeed,” Melissa said.
Cheeks pinked with pride or discomfort, Mulder changed the subject. “You two ladies head to the house. I’ll look after your luggage, Miss Scu…uh, Melissa.”
“Thank you,” Melissa said.
“This way.” Dana indicated the dusty road that curved uphill to the fort.
As they walked, Melissa slipped her arm around Dana’s waist and Dana did likewise. She’d been anticipating Missy’s homecoming for weeks and here she was at last. Dana had so much to tell her and even more she wanted to ask, but it was Melissa who spoke first.
“So you’re an engaged woman now!” Her smile was broad and genuine.
“I am.” Dana displayed her ring, which glittered prettily in the sunshine.
“That’s lovely!” Melissa gave Dana’s waist a squeeze. “And Mulder…wooo! He’s a huckleberry above a persimmon. Very dash-fire.”
“I think so.” There was no denying, he cut a fine figure, whether in formal dress, buckskins, or completely naked.
Dana led Melissa into the fort and past the blockhouse. It had been less than a year since Dana first walked this same path with Cap. Today, like then, a sergeant shouted orders to a unit of soldiers on the garrison's broad, grassy quadrangle. The day was hot and the road dusty. Piles of fresh horse manure drew flies.
Dana steered Melissa along the western side of the green, past the livery stable, storage warehouses, and enlisted men's quarters. "Carpenter's shop. Kitchen and mess.” She gestured as they strolled past. The aroma of smoked pork floated on the July air, causing her stomach to growl.
Sparks flew as a blacksmith shaped horseshoes outside his shanty, his hammer clanging loudly against the anvil. A jutting porch roof protected trade goods outside the fort’s store, the spot where she first spoke to Mulder. It seemed forever ago now. So much had changed for her since then.
Melissa surveyed their surroundings, curious as always. “You’re happy here?”
“I am, Missy. More than I can say.”
“When’s the wedding? While I’m here visiting, I hope.”
“Not likely, unless you plan to stay for several years. We’ve agreed to keep things as they are for now.”
“I understand. Being a free woman has distinct advantages.” Melissa slowed her stride and turned to look directly at Dana. “Speaking of freedom and its advantages, have you two…um…” She paused, then blurted out what she clearly wanted to ask: “Have you bedded him?”
“Missy!” Dana’s face heated. She stopped walking altogether. “I have. But you mustn’t say a word about it to Mother or Father!”
“I’m not one to cast stones.” Melissa laughed. “In my opinion, remaining a virgin until after marriage is highly overrated.”
“I heartily agree. On that subject, I recently received a raise from the US Army—”
“Thank you. And the first thing I purchased was a new four-poster bed with a thick mattress to go on it.”
“Feathering your love nest.”
“Indeed. My old cot with its squeaky springs was barely up to the task.”
Melissa giggled and nodded. They resumed their stroll.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, Dana, but given what you’ve written about Mulder in your letters, I half expected him to be wearing buckskins and feathers.”
“He’s on his best behavior today.”
“Ah. Of course. Tell me truthfully, how is Father handling this engagement of yours? I know Mulder isn’t the man he was hoping you’d marry.”
“It’s like the wind has gone out of his sails, to be honest. I know he’s not happy about the way things have turned out. He had very different plans for me. I’ve disappointed him.”
“To hell with him, Dana.”
“Missy! He’s our father!”
“But not our Lord Savior. Or even our king. We are grown women, who can decide for ourselves how we want to live. And with whom.”
Tears of appreciation sprang to Dana’s eyes. “Oh, Missy, I’ve missed you so much. I could’ve used your counsel months ago.”
“Well, not to worry, I’m here now and I’m happy to listen or give advice or do whatever you need. It’s wonderful to see you following your heart for once, instead of burying your feelings and trying to please everyone but yourself. You have an annoying habit of ignoring your instincts, you know.” The words were spoken kindly.
“You sound a bit like Mulder. I’m trying to improve but it doesn’t come easily. I prefer facts to fancy and science to speculation.”
“Believe me, I know.” Melissa laughed.
They continued on to the house, arm and arm, releasing each other only to climb the steps and enter the front door.
“Mom?” Dana called out once they were inside.
“In the kitchen, sweetheart.” Maggie’s voice carried down the long front hall.
Maggie was removing a pie from the oven when they entered the kitchen. Her face was flushed from the heat and tendrils of her hair had escaped her snood and were sticking to her sweat-dampened skin. She set the pie on the sideboard to cool, dropped her pot holders, and smiled the widest, happiest smile Dana had ever seen. Then she held out her arms and the two sisters fell into her embrace. Dana’s throat tightened, leaving her unable to speak. Meanwhile, Melissa laughed with joy and her mother cried openly.
All too soon, Maggie released them. She pulled two aprons from a drawer in the sideboard. “Here, put these on. We have plenty to do before dinner. Melissa, you can tell us all about your trip while we work.”
Dana took an apron, tied it around her waist, and pinned the bib over her dress before starting to wash the pile of dirty dishes that sat soaking in the sink. Her mother had clearly been busy cooking and baking all morning.
“Where’s Millie?” Dana asked about the maid.
“I gave her the day off to celebrate the holiday,” Maggie said. “Can you believe it? Of all days!”
“Not to worry, we can handle it,” Melissa said, grabbing a dish towel to dry the cookware Dana was busy scrubbing.
Maggie beamed at them. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to have both of my girls under my roof again!”
* * *
Mulder was never sure if he should knock or walk right in to the Scully house. Would he ever get over his nervousness around them and feel like part of the family? Just as he raised his knuckles to the door, it opened. Melissa stood on the other side. Smiling. He took it as a good sign.
“Welcome!” she said and held out a what appeared to be a glass of whiskey, neat. “Care for a drink?”
“Yes, but I’m going to decline. I need to keep a clear head.”
“Understood.” She took a sip herself.
“Am I late?” He removed his hat.
“Not really. Thank you for taking care of my luggage.”
He waved off her gratitude, although the task had turned out to be more complicated and took longer than anticipated. Her largest trunk had somehow gone missing and it took half the afternoon to search it down and get it delivered to the house.
He stepped into the foyer and she closed the door behind him.
“So, how’s everything going?” he asked in a whisper, his nervousness ratcheting up a notch or two.
“Better than expected, to be honest. Father and Bill Jr. returned from some military thing about an hour ago and apparently it went well, so they’re happy.”
Thank heavens for small favors. He hung his hat on the coat rack by the door. “And Dana?”
“Eager to see you.”
“That’s nice to hear…uh, assuming there’s not a problem.”
“No, no problem. Come on in and join the fun.”
Fun? That wasn’t a word he’d ever used to describe a family gathering, his own or Dana’s. Maybe especially Dana’s. Although to be fair, her father seemed to have forgiven Mulder his past trespasses. Okay, maybe “forgiven” was too strong a word. Major Scully was choosing to overlook them. Saving his life apparently softened his resolve to see Mulder hanged for treason. But that didn’t mean the Major was pleased at the thought of Mulder becoming his son-in-law. Far from it. To keep peace, they avoided discussing politics, religion, Manifest Destiny, relations with the Indians, and anything else that might be considered controversial. Still, Mulder expected the other shoe to drop, at which time he would be tossed out on his ear…or shot.
Thankfully, Margaret Scully didn’t seem to share her husband’s ill will. She’d become quickly fond of Mulder and would often intervene on his behalf whenever her husband’s temper threatened to boil over. Because of her kindness toward him, he allowed her to call him Fox without complaint. Hell, she could call him shit-for-brains and he wouldn’t care as long as she positioned herself as a bulwark between himself and the Major. He wasn’t too proud to hide behind his future mother-in-law’s skirts.
He was especially pleased when Mrs. Scully asked for his and Dana’s permission to place an engagement announcement in the local newspaper, “If I’m not overstepping my bounds.” Permission was granted, of course, and Mulder escorted Dana and her mother to the Picayune that very afternoon.
When Frohike asked Mrs. Scully if she wanted to include a poem to capture the sentiment of the occasion, she turned to Mulder for his advice. He didn’t hesitate and suggested an apropos line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Initially, Mrs. Scully balked at the quote, given the tragic ending of the star-crossed lovers. But Dana agreed it was perfect, so in it went.
Two days later, the announcement appeared in the Picayune:
Major and Mrs. William Scully of Flatwillow in the Territory of Montana are pleased to announce the engagement of their daughter Dana Katherine to Fox William Mulder of Chilmark, Massachusetts, son of William and Elizabeth ‘Teena’ Mulder.
“My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep, the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.”
Now the world knew that Mulder and Dana were betrothed and he couldn’t be more happy.
Mulder followed Melissa into the dining room, where everyone was gathered and about to sit down.
“Look what the cat dragged in,” Bill Jr. said.
Melissa stuck out her tongue at her brother. Dana shot Mulder a “where the hell have you been” look. He offered a subtle shrug.
“Hello, Fox. You’re just in time,” Maggie said from where she stood at the foot of the table.
The table was elegantly and extravagantly set. Glassware sparkled and the silver shone atop a snow-white tablecloth. Mulder hadn’t seen so many utensils at each place setting since Christmas dinner the year before Samantha disappeared. He silently thanked his mother for teaching him the difference between a salad, fish, and dessert fork.
Maggie positioned him next to Dana and across from Melissa, who sat beside Bill Jr. Major Scully presided at the head of the table. Food in large bowls and platters lined the center of the table to be served family style, given Millie’s absence. Dana gave Mulder’s thigh an encouraging squeeze beneath the table before the Major led them in saying grace.
The mood at the table was cheerful, the conversation pleasant as they ate. Mulder learned there was to be a fireworks display later in the evening and everyone was excited about going. It was clear the family was pleased to have Melissa among them after such a long absence. They obviously loved her enough to overlook her tendency toward recklessness and indiscretion, which gave Mulder hope for his own future with the Scully family.
Just as they were finishing dessert and Mulder was thinking he’d gotten off lightly during the day’s gathering, the Major broke their unspoken agreement to stick to uncontroversial topics and asked him about his future aspirations.
“What are your plans, Mr. Mulder, aside from the wedding on an as-yet-unnamed date?”
Was that intended as a barb?
“My plans?” Mulder glanced nervously at Dana. “Uh, I’m hoping to convince Sc…Dana to accompany me to Flathead Lake at week’s end.”
“Flathead Lake? Why there?” Bill Jr. asked. “To make a ‘delivery’ to the Indians?”
That was definitely intended to provoke him.
“Not at all. I’m searching for a…” Should he tell them the truth? “A mythical beast.”
Dana poked him beneath the table. Mulder ignored it.
“What sort of mythical beast?” Melissa asked, sounding sincerely curious.
“You really want to know?”
“Tell us, Fox,” Maggie urged. She, too, appeared genuinely interested.
“Well, according to the legend, the first native tribe in that area lived on an island in the middle of the lake. One winter while the tribe was crossing the frozen lake to move their camp, two girls saw a pair of giant antlers poking up through the ice.”
“Like an elk or a moose?” Melissa asked.
“Precisely. Thinking the animal they belonged to must be drowned and dead below the ice, the girls decided to chop off the antlers and take them. They used their knives to cut at the antlers, but as they worked to saw through them, the ice around them split open and the head of a monster came up from under the surface, shaking its antlers and breaking up all the ice on the lake.”
“That must’ve been a hell of a big monster,” Bill Jr. scoffed.
“It was. Half the tribe drowned. The survivors never returned to the island, choosing to live on shore where it was safer. Sightings of the antlered monster continue to this day.”
Bill Jr. guffawed. “That’s a pretty tall tale! You believe that ridiculous story?”
“I want to believe it.”
“But why, Fox?” Maggie asked. “Why would you want to believe that?”
They all looked at him. “I…I guess I see hope in such a possibility.”
“Hope? In a killer monster?” Bill Jr. shook his head.
“Dana, you’re not really intending to go along on this…uh, adventure, are you?” Worry creased Maggie’s brow.
“In fact, I am,” she said, surprising Mulder. He thought she would need a lot more convincing. “There’s a small settlement of Swedish immigrants living near there. I plan to inoculate them with smallpox vaccine and provide any additional medical attention they might need.”
Ah, of course. Well, whatever her excuse, he was glad she would be going with him.
“At least that’s a sensible reason,” Bill Jr. said.
“Good for you, Dana. And I hope Mulder finds his mythical beast,” Melissa said. “I see hope in the existence of the unknown and the unexplained, too. Makes life interesting.”
“You would think that.” Bill Jr. spooned the last of his bread pudding into his mouth and washed it down with wine. In a derisive tone, he said, “Speaking of the unexplained, have there been any more attacks by that creature…what was it called, Mulder? A ‘where-did-it-go’?”
“A wendigo. And no, there have been no additional attacks that I’ve heard about.” Mulder had wondered about that often over the past two months. Where had Reece Drummond disappeared to? And the original wendigo that attacked Drummond, where was it?
“That day in the infirmary with Mr. Cleaves…,” Major Scully said, looking uncomfortable. “Did all that really happen?
“You witnessed it yourself, sir. What do you think happened?” Mulder asked.
“Yes, what exactly did happen?” Bill Jr. asked. “You’ve said very little about it, Father.”
“Well, I was knocked off my feet…in all the excitement…I didn’t really have a clear view of it all…,” Cap blustered.
“A man turned into a 10-foot-tall, emaciated, murderous monster in front of our eyes,” Mulder reminded him, “and then back into a man again after I cut out its ice-crystal heart with my knife and tossed it into the fire.”
“Is that true?” Maggie asked. “Bill? Dana?”
“That is…essentially the way it happened,” Dana said, “though I can’t explain any of it.”
“Mr. Mulder did save the lot of us, of that much I’m sure,” Major Scully agreed. “And I am grateful to him. I probably should’ve said this sooner but will try to make up for my omission now by saying…thank you, son.”
These were words Mulder had never expected to hear from Dana’s father, not if they lived ten lifetimes. He wanted to whoop for joy, dance Dana around the room, give the Major a hug, but in the end, he simply said, “Glad I was there, sir.”
After dinner, they all wandered down to the dock to watch the fireworks. Spectators crowded along the river’s grassy bank to await the show. Some milled about while others brought blankets to sit on. Children ran from the road to the pier and back again, unable to keep still, their excited shouts echoing across the water. A rowdy gathering of miners shared a jug of whiskey.
The valley darkened and cooled as the sun set. Stars winked in the purple-black sky to the east, like gold nuggets in a prospector’s pan. On the aft deck of the Lady Lynne, soldiers set up shells and rockets, aimed out over the water. They moved about by lantern light, their muted voices carrying on the soft, summer breeze.
Major Scully and Maggie hung back by the road, his arm loosely around her shoulders. Melissa and Bill Jr. sauntered down to the dock. Their laughter rang out above the murmur of the crowd as they chatted and teased one another. Mulder could imagine them as children, joining forces as the oldest siblings. Their camaraderie made him miss Samantha, a fierce longing that hadn’t lessened in all this time.
He wrapped an arm around Dana and let himself briefly imagine the children they might have one day. She leaned into him. He felt more content than he had in years.
“That didn’t go too badly,” she said, referring to the family dinner and the Major’s unexpected turnaround.
“Yes, I’m still alive.” He tugged at his starched collar. The day had certainly been full of surprises.
“Are you serious about going to Flathead Lake to look for a mythical beast?” she asked.
“Completely serious. You still willing to come along?”
“Yes, I’ll come with you. If for no other reason than to find a logical explanation for your antlered creature…or to help you through your disappointment when you don’t find it.”
“O, ye of little faith.” He’d been right about the wendigo, but decided not to mention it. He really wasn’t an I-told-you-so sort of man.
He’d originally come west to search for his sister. He'd seen many wonders here. And there were plenty more to investigate. Yet never in his wildest fantasies had he expected to find the love of a woman like Scully, a woman willing to follow him on trust alone.
The fizz and spark of a Catherine Wheel signaled the start of the fireworks. A rocket whistled off the aft deck. It exploded high above the water, filling the sky with fingers of light. Its reflections sparkled in the river. The crowd oohed and clapped. The smell of gunpowder and smoke floated downwind.
A second rocket quickly followed the first. Then one after the next, shells, brightly colored flares, whirling tourbillions, and more rockets shot heavenward. Bright, tailed, and colored stars fanned out and lit the night sky. The blasts were so loud, Mulder felt them like a wallop to his chest. Each thunderous boom ricocheted endlessly across the mountains.
Dana rose up on her toes, drawing Mulder’s attention. He bent down to kiss her, full on the mouth in front of her family and the entire town. He felt full to bursting with his love for her. With his lips pressed to hers, he soon lost count of the explosions overhead, hearing only the wild beat of his own heart.
Reluctantly, he broke their kiss to catch his breath. He smiled down at her.
“Is being engaged everything you’d hoped?” she asked, her love for him evident in her tender expression.
Tears pricked his eyes. They’d been fated to meet, he was certain. Soulmates, paired for eternity.
“More than I dreamed possible,” he said before kissing her again.
(Posted October 31, 2023)