The basin on the nightstand had been emptied and wiped clean of blood. Beside it lay a fresh cloth, a bar of pine tar soap, horn comb, and a small, round pocket mirror, presumably put out for Dana's use. A kettle of water heated over the fire.
Tucked beneath the edge of the basin was a piece of folded notepaper. Gone to get breakfast was all it said. Dana set it back on the stand and picked up the mirror to inspect her injured eye.
A periorbital hematoma, as black as the ink on Mr. Mulder's note, dominated the right side of her face. Thankfully, there was no actual trauma to the eyeball itself. The bruises would heal in a week's time, with no lasting damage.
Overall, Dana felt much improved this morning. Her headache and queasiness were gone, and she felt thoroughly rested, thanks in large part to having spent the night in Mr. Mulder's bed, not perched awkwardly on the bench beside his table. She should be annoyed with him for moving her, but since she awoke fully dressed, buttons buttoned, and garters in place, she deduced he had done nothing untoward while she slept. Evidently he retained some civilized manners despite his otherwise unconventional behavior and primitive living conditions.
Her appearance was frightful. Blood and mud caked her hair. Her cheeks and chin were streaked with dirt and her formerly white blouse was filthy and torn, exposing her cleavage and even a bit of corset, she noticed now. To think she had eaten dinner with Mr. Mulder last night while in such a state!
If her father or Bill Jr. were to see her like this, they would overreact for certain. Unfortunately, taking a bath and changing her clothes was not an option, as she had no clean garments to change into, nor did there appear to be a bathtub anywhere in the cabin. Mr. Mulder evidently washed up outside, possibly beneath the eaves of his roof when it rained, alongside his dinner dishes.
She filled the basin with hot water from the kettle and did her best to scrub the blood and grime from her face, neck, and décolletage with soap and cloth. She daubed at her hairline and brow carefully so as not to reopen the wound there. After several minutes, she felt satisfied that she was as clean as she was going to get under the circumstances, so began to work on her hair.
Using the comb, she untangled the worst of her snarls. Finding only one hairpin embedded in the knots -- not enough to hold a chignon -- she braided her hair instead. Lacking any ribbon to tie off the end, she stole a rawhide lace from a snowshoe.
Now, what to do about her ripped blouse? She rifled through a trunk at the foot of the bed, looking for either sewing needle and thread, or a serviceable garment to cover her own. She found various articles of clothing, all made of deerskin, a heavy fur coat, and several pairs of wool socks, most in need of darning.
A dilapidated wardrobe in the corner yielded one pair each of railhead and canvas trousers, a frockcoat, military cloak, trapper's vest, striped shirt with detachable collar, and a plain linen shirt much like the one Mr. Mulder had been wearing yesterday. Although oversized for her small frame, it was cleaner -- and less revealing -- than her own torn blouse, so she pulled it from its hanger.
The shirt held the faint scent of its owner, as did everything in the wardrobe. She lifted it to her nose and sniffed. A pleasant blend of pine soap, rain water, and a spicy masculine aroma, barely perceptible, yet unexpectedly alluring, filled her sinuses. It set off a strange fluttering in her stomach as she slipped the garment over her head and plunged her arms into the long sleeves. She rolled up the cuffs and buttoned the front placket.
Something jingled in the single breast pocket. Coins? She reached in and pulled out...
Two tokens promised a night of pleasure at the saloon in Flatwillow. Worth three dollars each, they were fair tender for the casino, food, whiskey, and girls, according to the stamp on the back. Sport enough for a year to come, they claimed.
She deposited them on the table next to the cloth doll with a pin stuck in its chest.
The early morning sun shone brightly through the cabin windows, drawing her across the room to look out at the landscape. Last night's storm had given way to a cloudless cornflower-blue sky. Raindrops shimmered on every pine bough and blade of grass, and purple asters bobbed in a meadow that sloped downhill to a wide stream. Boulders dotted the sparkling, shallow water, which horseshoed around a sandbar laden with bleached driftwood. Mr. Mulder's horse grazed on wildrye at the shore.
Between the cabin and the meadow, heaps of split cordwood surrounded a large chopping block topped with an axe. A gutted elk hung upside-down from the limb of a gnarled whitebark pine. Last night's dinner dishes no longer lay on the ground beneath the overhanging roof; Mr. Mulder had apparently picked them up and put them away while she was sleeping. Dana scanned the clearing and the ragged tree line for any sign of her missing host, but he was nowhere to be seen.
Returning to the "kitchen," she set about making coffee. She quickly located a sack of beans and chicory, a hand grinder, and a dented Chesterman pot. Tin cups hung from wooden pegs on the wall.
Excellent, now all she needed was water.
She had emptied the kettle when washing up. Fetching more from the stream would be problematic wearing only one boot. She decided it would be easier to go barefoot than hop on one leg, so she stripped off her garters and stockings, and tossed them onto the bed before grabbing the kettle and hobbling out the front door.
Outdoors the air was cool and sweet, smelling of wet earth and spruce. She squinted into the bright sun and listened to the rustle of aspen leaves and splash of water over rocks and gravel. A vireo whistled atop a stand of lodgepole pines to the south, its song as pure as the mountain air. She limped toward the stream, dew-covered grass chilling her bare feet, kettle swinging.
The stream pooled beneath a series of shallow waterfalls, creating a small clear pond. Gravel silvered the bottom. Fish darted among the shadows. She set down the kettle and gathered her skirts. Holding the fabric bunched in one hand, she retrieved the kettle and waded in up to her knees. The water was icy cold. It quickly soaked the bandage on her ankle. She dipped and filled the kettle, then stepped back on shore, where she stood for a moment on the smooth river stones, letting her feet dry.
Mr. Mulder's horse wandered up the slope to the north, tail twitching and head wagging off flies. Bumblebees hummed as they flitted among the flowers in the field. Mountains rose up sharply behind the cabin, creating a dramatic backdrop of ledge and timber.
It was beautiful here. Wild and beguiling, a place without rules or expectations. Charlie would like it.
She inhaled and felt as unburdened as a child. The relief of it was intoxicating. She wondered what it would be like to live here all the time, free to think and do as she pleased, beyond society's –- and her parents' -- scrutiny.
No point thinking about it. Her new home was back on the plain, at the fort, wife to Lieutenant Skinner or some other upstanding gentleman, hand-picked by her father and mother. She refused to disappoint them, as Melissa had done. They considered Dana their "good girl." The price of personal freedom was too high if, in the end, it estranged her from her family. As long as her future husband tolerated her desire to practice medicine and overlooked her less-than-perfect domestic skills, she believed she could be happy.
Mr. Mulder would be returning soon, to take her from this wondrous, tempting place, back to the fort, as she had demanded so adamantly last night. She would probably never see him again, she realized with some sadness. Just as well. She needed to make peace with her fate, and neither Mr. Mulder nor his mountain home featured in her future plans.
Upon her return to Fort Culbertson, she would explain her actions to her father, who would be infuriated by her disappearance, yet relieved to know she was safe and relatively unharmed. After a few days, he'd forgive her impetuousness and the worry she had caused. Especially now that she was willing to entertain the notion of marrying Lieutenant Skinner. As for her, she'd wait for the Lieutenant's proposal. If he agreed to let her practice medicine, she'd likely say yes. What other choice was there?
Reluctantly, she climbed the slope to the cabin. The kettle hung heavily in her hand, its load weighting her arm, its handle cutting into her fingers. Her ankle throbbed with each step.
A low, menacing growl stopped her at the chopping block. Her pulse quickened. A large wolf stood between her and the cabin. It fixed amber eyes upon her as it sniffed the air.
The gray, shaggy beast was well-muscled, humped at the shoulders, with a barrel chest, and thick legs. Long fangs glinted behind its curled lips. She read malevolence in its yellow eyes. Every instinct told her to turn and run. Common sense said a woman with an injured foot could not outrun a wolf. Slowly, she set down the kettle and reached for the axe.
The wolf nosed forward. Her fingers fumbled blindly along the axe handle. She grabbed it and wrenched it free.
"Sisomm!" Mulder called as he rounded the corner of the cabin. He carried a large basket looped over one bare arm. His upper body was naked except for a leather vest, open at the chest. Rather than being frightened of the wolf, he seemed almost pleased to see it. "Come, boy."
The animal turned and trotted to him, tail wagging.
He scratched its ears. "I wondered where you'd gone off to."
Axe still raised, Dana watched dumbfounded.
"You won't need that," Mulder said, noticing her at last. "He's friendly."
"But it's...it's...a wolf!"
"Only half. His mother was a dog owned by an Assiniboin named Two Bears. Sisomm, sit." The animal obeyed. "Good boy." Mulder rewarded him with a wad of jerky from his vest pocket. Sisomm gulped it down, then licked Mulder's fingers, begging for more. "That's all you're getting, you greedy dog. Now go lie down. You're frightening my guest."
The axe quavered in Dana's upraised arms. Mulder crossed to her and eased it from her grasp. "Really, he won't hurt you. I've had him since he was a pup."
"Why would you allow a wolf...a half wolf...to live with you? Aren't you afraid he'll eat you in your sleep?"
He chuckled. "No." With a powerful, one-armed swing, he drove the axe blade deeply into the chopping block. He gestured at the hanging elk carcass. "Sisomm guards my food. Speaking of which..." He held out the basket like a present. "Breakfast," he said proudly.
She took the basket and peered inside. Four large, brown duck eggs lay nestled in a bed of fresh greens.
"I've got some cheese in the larder, too. And plenty of elk meat, obviously."
She started to follow the point of his finger, but her attention stalled on his bare, muscled chest. Tan and velvety smooth, his skin invited her touch. It was all she could do not to reach out...
Heat crawled up her neck and cheeks. She tightened her hold on the basket to keep her fingers from acting on their own.
"Are you hungry?" He scooped up the kettle of water, either missing, or purposely ignoring, her ogling and subsequent embarrassment.
"Mm" was all she could manage to say.
Then he did look at her. Closely. His gaze traveled over her washed face, combed hair. His shirt. She swallowed hard, but it was his Adam's apple she could see bobbing as he fixed his stare on the buttons that hid her cleavage. A different sort of hunger haunted his eyes.
"We should eat these," she said, mouth dry. She held up the basket and was alarmed to see it shaking in her hands.
He levered it from her fingers, much as he had done with the axe only moments before. Perhaps he was afraid she would drop it, breaking all the fragile eggs. Fearing the same thing, and more, she relinquished her hold and, head down, walked as fast as she could on her injured foot to the cabin. Mr. Mulder followed after her, his own hands now occupied with basket and kettle, his eyes free to wander wherever he pleased.
* * *
Please, God, keep her safe, Maggie prayed. She sat alone in the drawing room on the edge of the divan, clutching Dana's bedraggled, blood-spattered hat.
Her baby was hurt. But how badly?
Charlie and Lieutenant Skinner had returned late last night, bringing Dana's hat, boot, and the disturbing news that she had fallen from her horse and would be spending the night in the mountains with that crazy Indian sympathizer, Fox Mulder.
Maggie placed a hand over her heart at the memory. Her pulse raced now just as it had last night when she stood in the entryway, dressed in nightgown and robe, trying to hold back rising panic as the men described their search and its dismal results.
Cap and Bill Jr. had been ready to ride out immediately to fetch Dana back, but Lieutenant Skinner argued that traveling Nine Pipe Ridge was perilous enough in daylight, when the weather was fine. In the pitch of night, during a storm like this, it would be impossible.
"But my daughter is injured." Cap grabbed Dana's bloody hat from Skinner and held it up as proof.
"We don't know that, sir." Skinner removed his spectacles and wiped rain from the lenses with the hem of his frockcoat. Maggie thought he looked vulnerable without his glasses and she was certain she read fear in his dark eyes. "Although, admittedly, it does look that way."
"She may be in dire need of medical attention." Cap thrust the hat into Maggie's hands.
It felt as if she held a blacksmith's anvil, not a felt and feather cap.
"Medical attention from whom? Corporal Beckett?" Skinner asked, referring to the fort's second-rate medic. He put his glasses back on. "He'll be passed out drunk on his bed at this hour."
"I've tended enough childhood illnesses and injuries to be of help," Maggie volunteered.
"Absolutely not, Mother!" Charlie's shook rainwater from his cloak. Water dripped from his reddened nose and chin. His customarily wild hair was plastered against his skull. "It's blowing a gale. We won't risk you getting injured, too."
"Then what are we going to do?" she asked.
Lieutenant Skinner stared at the hat in her hands. "I understand your concern, Mrs. Scully, but--"
"Concern? I'm scared to death for my daughter!"
"Of course." He nodded. "We'll go first thing in the morning, when Corporal Beckett is sober, and it's safer to transport Miss Scully home. I assure you, she's in good hands with Mr. Mulder."
"I'm not convinced of any such thing," Cap said. "Mr. Mulder's reputation is far from stellar -- in all respects."
"I'm going up there -- now." Bill Jr. grabbed his cloak and hat from the coat tree beside the front door.
Charlie rolled his eyes. "Good luck finding your way."
"Just how hard did you try, Charlie?"
"I was out looking longer than you!"
"If I had found her hat and boot, I'd be out there still."
"You didn't even think she would ride into the mountains. You said--"
"Boys, please, stop bickering!" Maggie insisted. "It isn't helping."
Bill Jr. turned on Skinner instead. "What in hell were you thinking, leaving her in the mountains all night with that madman?"
Recalling rumors about Fox Mulder's alleged liaisons with the daughters of Chief Kicking Horse, Maggie said, "Dana requires a chaperone if she's to spend the night in a cabin with a man who is not a relative. One of you must go and stay with her tonight."
"She's already been alone with Mulder for the better part of the day, Mrs. Scully," Skinner said.
"A fact that does little to ease my mind, Lieutenant."
"She's safe with him," Skinner insisted. "You have my word on that."
"You might feel differently if she were your sister," Bill Jr. said.
"Are you saying I don't care what happens to her?"
"I am forced to wonder."
"Damn it, Bill, she's my fiancée!" Skinner's shout echoed down the hall.
Charlie blinked in surprise. "You proposed? When did this happen? Did she accept?"
"No, I...I haven't proposed. Not yet."
"Then you're not entitled to make decisions that affect her wellbeing," Bill Jr. said.
"Dana is her father's responsibility until she is legally married." Maggie turned to Cap. "Dear, please, go to our daughter tonight or send one of the boys. Don't leave her unprotected."
Dana was the pride of Cap's life, his greatest joy. Clearly, this situation was intolerable for him. His face was as white as a death shroud and all his usual vigor seemed to have drained away. Maggie had never seen him look as fragile or as heartsick as he did at that moment.
"Lieutenant Skinner is not yet Dana's husband, it's true, but he will be soon," Cap said in a gravely voice, "which means that he, not I, will be responsible for her care and safety. It's a duty I do not relinquish easily. But the lieutenant convinced me some time ago that he is up to the task and I am banking my daughter's future happiness upon his pledge. In less than a month's time, they will be married, with my blessing. Therefore, Lieutenant," -- he turned to Skinner -- "I am asking you to decide the best course of action for my daughter at this terrible time. Please, consider carefully before you make your decision, as both her reputation and her life may be at stake."
Maggie blinked in surprise. Bill Jr. and Charlie looked equally shocked. None of them had ever witnessed William Scully Sr. defer to a man of lesser rank.
If Skinner was as surprised as the rest of them by this unexpected turn of events, he did not show it. "I'll ride out at first light, sir, and bring her home. You and your sons are welcome to accompany me, of course."
"Father, you can't allow this!" Bill Jr. objected.
"Yes, I can. It's done," Cap said. "The decision has been made."
"Father..." Bill Jr. started to object, but Cap quickly cut him off.
"There's to be no more argument. Is that understood?" He left off the word "soldier," but the implication was clear from his tone. This was an order. And although it went against Maggie's deepest wishes, she was relieved to see that her husband had not changed so completely after all.
"Yes, sir," Bill Jr, acquiesced, his suppressed anger turning his face scarlet.
"Who will ride with me in the morning?" Skinner asked.
"I will," Charlie said, still looking uneasy.
"Don't think I'm staying behind." Bill Jr.'s jaw lifted as if he had been challenged to a duel.
"And you, sir?" Skinner asked Cap.
He shook his head. "My duty is with my wife and the men of this fort. I shall remain here."
"Very well. I suggest everyone try to get some sleep." Skinner fitted his hat to his head, preparing to take his leave. "It's been a long and trying day, and we will need to be fresh in the morning."
And that was it apparently. Dana would remain in the mountains for the night, her condition unknown, her caretaker questionable. Tears stung Maggie's eyes, but she did as she was expected to do and accompanied her husband upstairs to their bedroom without further argument.
At dawn, Skinner, Charlie, and Bill Jr. headed out to find Dana. Corporal Beckett did not join them, as he was too hung over to ride. Cap retired to his study to tackle what he described as a "dung heap" of paperwork, using duty as a smokescreen for his emotions, as was his custom. Maggie turned to prayer, as she often did in trying times.
"Almighty God, shield my daughter Dana with your strength and beneficence. Protect her from all evil and harm. Return her to my waiting embrace."
She then recited the 46th Psalm: "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains--"
"Ma'am, could I bring you some tea?" Millie poked her head into the parlor. "Oh, sorry! I didn't mean to interrupt."
"It's quite all right, Millie. I should have tended to my morning chores hours ago." Maggie placed the bloody hat on the occasional table beside the divan. She stood and straightened her skirt. God would take care of Dana, she was certain. Perhaps he already had, in the form of Lieutenant Skinner. Or maybe even Fox Mulder. "Get out the copper polish and rags. I'll fetch an apron. There are pots in the kitchen that need a good scrubbing."
* * *
Breakfast finished, dishes washed and put away, Dana nosed around the cabin while Mulder saddled his horse. In a matter of minutes, she would be going home and the idea was not nearly as comforting as it had seemed last night.
Alone in the cabin, she knelt in front of his library -- several stacks of books piled haphazardly on the floor beside the hearth -- and scanned the titles. Many of the volumes were heavily bookmarked with scraps of paper. "Description of a Singular Appearance" by Richard Carrington; "The Origin of Species" by Charles Darwin; "Real and Imaginary Worlds" by Camille Flammarion; "Five Weeks in a Balloon" by Jules Verne.
She pulled this last, a self-proclaimed "voyage extraordinaire," from the stack and flipped through the pages, stopping at a fantastical illustration labeled "The Tree of Cannibals." In the picture's foreground, a great pile of human bones surrounded a tall tree with a fat trunk. Decapitated heads hung on pegs hammered into the bark. Behind this atrocity, thin Negroes congregated outside thatched huts.
Another illustration, titled "The Sultan's Palace," showed a hot air balloon floating high above a mountainous landscape. Half-naked natives gathered in great numbers outside a large, round structure with a conical roof.
She skimmed the text on the facing page.
"Three-quarters of an hour later, through shady paths, surrounded by all the luxuriance of tropical vegetation... arrived at the sultan's palace, a sort of square edifice... situated on the slope of a hill.... Most of the women were rather good-looking..."
She glanced over her shoulder toward the cabin door. No sign of her host.
"They laughed and chattered merrily as they smoked.... They seemed to be well made, too, under the long robes that they wore gracefully flung about their persons."
Guilt prickled her skin. She should put the book away. It did not belong to her and the adventurous and titillating subject matter was more to Charlie's liking than her own.
"Just one more passage," she told herself.
"Dr. Ferguson, taking in the whole scene at a rapid glance, approached the wooden couch on which the sultan lay reclining. There he saw a man of about forty, completely brutalized by orgies of every description--"
"You're welcome to borrow that, if you like." Mr. Mulder entered the cabin and crossed the room. His shadow darkened the pages as he loomed over her.
She shut the book. "You have peculiar taste in reading material, Mr. Mulder."
"The least of my vices, according to some."
"You're referring to my father."
"He's not alone in his opinion."
"You sound almost proud of your...unconventional... reputation." She returned the book to the pile.
"Proud? Hardly. But I do prize the independence eccentricity affords. My reputation seems a small price to pay."
"Do you really believe that? Don't you worry about being at odds with the rest of the world, alienated from loved ones and civilized society?"
"Am I alienated from loved ones?" He knelt beside her, putting them eye to eye. Long hair blanketed his shoulders; dark as polished mahogany, smooth as Chinese silk, it invited her touch, just as his velvety skin had earlier. "The freedom to pursue my own course far outweighs the millstone of social obligation."
"You remind me of my brother."
"Bill? That loud-mouthed, overbearing, Indian-hating--" He stopped, apparently realizing he was insulting someone she would love in spite of his shortcomings. "I don't see how we're alike in any way."
"I was referring to my younger brother, Charlie, not Bill."
"Ah. The redhead."
"Yes." Dana smiled, thinking of him. "Do you have siblings, Mr. Mulder?"
"A sister." He pointed to a small tintype in an ormolu frame on the mantle above the hearth. "That's her."
She rose to get a closer look. "Do you mind?" she asked, indicating she wanted to remove the photograph from its place of honor.
He shook his head, granting her permission, so she carried it to the window where the light was better.
A young girl, about eight or nine years old, smiled engagingly for the camera. She had an oval face and long, dark braids tied up with ribbons.
"She's very pretty. She looks like you, around the eyes and mouth. What's her name?"
"Does she live back east with your parents?"
"No." Mulder joined her by the window, his expression wistful. "That picture was taken years ago."
"Ah, so she's married now, with a home of her own."
"Possibly? You don't know?" Evidently he was estranged from his loved ones. His desire to live life on his own terms had cost him his military career and his family. Was freedom truly worth such a high price?
He slid the picture from her hands and returned it to the mantle. "We should go. Your family will be worried."
* * *
Skinner led the two Scully brothers up Ptarmigan Hill on horseback. If angry stares were daggers, he would have a back full.
"There's where we found her hat." Charlie pointed out the spot to Bill. "Her boot was over there, next to Mulder's Indian necklace."
"If that madman has laid one finger on her," Bill Jr. threatened, "I'll break his goddamn neck."
"You'll have to get in line behind me," Charlie blustered.
"You're both worrying for nothing," Skinner said. "She's fine. You'll see."
"You have a lot more confidence in Crazy Fox than I do. He's the least trustworthy son-of-a-bitch I've ever met. We both know what he does."
"Yes. He fucks the U.S. Army and as many Blackfoot squaws as he can get his grubby--"
"You don't know what you're talking about."
"I know you've been cuckolded, Walter. Mark my words."
"Don't say things like that, Bill," Charlie growled. "Not about Dana. She's our sister!"
"Grow up, little brother. I'm just stating the truth."
"Dana can defend herself."
"She a woman, for chrissake! A man like Mulder could easily overpower her." Bill pointed an accusing finger at Skinner. "And I'll hold you personally responsible for anything he's done to her."
"You do that." Skinner spurred his horse up the incline. Stones clattered down the rocky slope and disappeared into the abyss below.
* * *
Mulder helped Dana onto his horse, then climbed up behind her.
"Comfortable?" he asked, once he was snuggled against her back.
In fact, she was. Very. Wedged between his splayed thighs, her back blanketed by his warm, bare chest, she felt both secure and strangely invigorated. An image of them riding off together on a great, long adventure flashed into her mind.
She quickly dismissed the idea. Such fantasies were useless. Her family and career waited back at Fort Culbertson, and she was not prepared to give up either. Not for a silly, short-lived escapade.
"I'm fine, thank you."
"Then off we go." His breath steamed her ear. He snaked his arms beneath hers to take the reins as he urged the horse with a "Geddyup."
His thighs tightened and the weight of his body shifted as he steered them downhill across the meadow. They were about to enter the forest when Sisomm suddenly appeared, bounding after them, barking and wagging his tail.
"No, Sisomm, stay," Mulder ordered. He brought the horse to a standstill.
The dog stopped, too, tail gone still and ears perked. He stared at his master with hopeful eyes.
"Watch the place," Mulder said sternly, and pointed to the cabin.
Sisomm whined, but after a moment's hesitation, raced to the cabin and settled in front of the door.
"Won't he follow us as soon as we're out of sight?" she asked.
"No, he'll stay put. He's a good watchdog."
A click of Mulder's tongue started the horse going again.
For half a mile, they rode in silence through a shady, evergreen forest. The horse's hooves thudded hollowly on tree roots and needled forest floor. Dense foliage blocked the view. Dana felt cocooned in Mulder's loose embrace, the spicy scent of pine prickling her nose, his breath stirring her hair. His hands rested practically in her lap.
"It's lovely here," she said with a sigh.
"You think this is beautiful, wait until you see..." He paused for effect. The horse stepped out into brilliant sunshine. "Nine Pipe Ridge."
The ground dropped away thousands of feet on either side of a narrow, sawtoothed trail. This knife's edge connected the ledge they were on to a craggy mountain peak a quarter mile to the south. Mist rolled up the western face, while the eastern side remained clear. Wind roared like a forge bellows across the treeless crest, pummeling her chest and setting her skirt flapping. Mulder's hair writhed in the updraft. Dana gasped as they started across.
He hooked an arm around her waist. "I've got you," he murmured.
There was scant room on the path for the horse to maneuver without slipping off the side and plummeting into the valley a mile below.
"Easy there, Ponoká." Mulder carefully guided the horse around a series of boulders.
"It's Blackfoot for 'Elk.'"
"You named your horse 'elk'? Because he's sure-footed?" she asked, hopefully.
"Not exactly. I was just learning the language when Red Crow gave him to me. He and Few Tails teased me about my mistake for months afterwards."
"Why didn't you change it and stop their mockery?"
She felt him shrug.
"I guess I've gotten used to being the butt of people's jokes," he said wryly. "Besides, after a few trips across Nine Pipe Ridge, it seemed appropriate."
"Is this the way you brought me to your cabin?" she asked, appalled by the thought. How had he managed it at night in the storm? A fall here would be fatal for certain.
"It's the fastest route." His arm tightened around her, for which she was grateful. "Stop worrying. I've been over it so many times I could ride it in my sleep. In fact, I have. Ponoká' knows the way."
How anyone could sleep up here was beyond her. She clenched her jaw to keep her teeth from chattering and wished her arms and legs would stop quaking. She feared a return bout of dizziness, so kept her eyes aimed upward.
It seemed an eternity before they reached the far side, where the trail widened. She breathed an audible sigh of relief, which caused Mulder to chuckle. He directed Ponoká downhill.
The trail curved around the mountain. Panoramic views of the valley came and went as they wove in and out of trees, skirting washouts and open ledges. The path was wet and muddy. Numerous waterfalls thundered over rocky cliffs, chilling Dana with their spray as they passed. She was thankful for Mulder's warm, shielding embrace.
Around the next bend, they came face-to-face with Bill Jr., Charlie, and Skinner on horseback.
"Whoa." Mulder reined Ponoká to a standstill.
Her brothers and Skinner stopped, too, about twenty feet down-trail. They were clearly shocked by what they saw.
Dana imagined how she must look, sitting on Mulder's horse, eye blacker than a storm cloud, skirt hitched up above her knees, bare legs and feet exposed.
"I wouldn't have believed you capable of this, Mulder," Skinner said through gritted teeth. "I told these men they could trust you. They took me at my word. I can see now how wrong I was." He struggled to control his incredulity and obvious fury. "Miss Scully, if you're able, please dismount."
She moved to get down, but Mulder gripped her arm, stopping her.
"I'd be happy to take you the rest of the way," he murmured into her ear.
"That's not necessary, Mr. Mulder. You've been very kind, but it's time I took my leave and allowed you to get back to your...work."
"Then at least let me help you down," he said and swung out of the saddle.
A shiver ran across her shoulders when his body left her back. She slid into his arms and he carried her to Skinner.
"This isn't what it looks like, Walter," he said, holding her.
"I hope not, for her sake and yours." Skinner reached out, grabbed her arm, and with Mulder's help, hauled her up onto his horse. She sat sidesaddle in front of him, her brief flirtation with freedom at an end. A profound melancholy descended upon her. Skinner turned his horse downhill.
Mulder remained standing in the middle of the trail, hands on his hips, watching them go.
"That's it?" Bill Jr. shouted. "You're going to let him get away with this?"
"Keep your temper, Mr. Scully. Our business here is done," Skinner growled.
"To hell it is!" Bill Jr. descended from his horse and ran at Mulder. Shoulder to ribs, he plowed straight into him.
Caught off guard, Mulder was propelled several strides up the trail. He flailed his arms. Caught hold of Bill's frockcoat. They toppled. Mulder landed hard on his back with Bill on top of him. Bill pummeled his face and neck. Blood spurted from Mulder's nose. He shoved Bill away and rolled out of range.
Bill regained his footing first. "Get up, you goddamn son of a bitch," he demanded, fists balled.
"Stop it! Bill, stop!" Dana shouted.
Mulder rose unsteadily, hands raised with palms out. Bill threw a punch. Mulder ducked. Bill faked a right. Jabbed with his left. Struck Mulder square on the jaw.
The blow knocked Mulder's head back, but he remained standing. The next blow, an uppercut to the chin, sent him reeling into a tree trunk.
Why didn't he strike back, defend himself? Dana wondered.
She tried to climb off the horse, but Skinner curled a muscled arm around her waist and held her firmly in place.
"Let me go."
"You're safer right here."
"Then you go! Stop them!"
Bill struck Mulder's jaw with a freight-train punch. Mulder's legs wobbled. Gave out. He collapsed to his knees. Blood drooled from his mouth.
Grabbing hold of his vest, Bill hauled him to his feet. Saliva sprayed from Bill's lips as he roared, "You give my sister that black eye? Rough her up before taking her to your bed?"
Mulder met Bill's hate-filled stare. "You're making a mistake."
Bill's knuckles collided with Mulder's cheek, rocking him back on his heels. A strike below the belt folded him in half. Mulder yelped. Gripped his crotch. A knee to the chin knocked him back. Two hard hits to the gut sent him careening into a ledge. His head cracked against stone. He slipped to the ground.
"Lieutenant, please," Dana begged Skinner, "end this."
Skinner's gaze dropped to her shirt, Mulder's shirt. His fingers dug into the fabric. He shook his head.
Bill seized Mulder's arm and hauled him to his feet. He wrapped thick fingers around his opponent's throat and drove him backwards to the edge of the cliff.
"Stop it, Bill! He didn't hurt me!" Dana shouted. "Charlie, do something!"
Charlie remained in his saddle, red face contorted with unwarranted rage.
Mulder struggled against Bill's iron grip. Tried to pry his fingers loose.
"You went too far this time, Crazy Fox," Bill Jr. sneered, eyes glittering. His thumb pressed into Mulder's larynx.
"You're...wrong...," Mulder rasped.
Dana twisted in the saddle. "Lieutenant...Walter...please help him. He's your friend."
Regret glazed Skinner's eyes. "No, he's no friend of mine. I'm sorry."
Dana had to do something, and soon. Mulder's face was turning purple as he struggled to break Bill's stranglehold.
"Then I'll help him myself."
She tried to twist free, but Skinner's grip remained firm. Frustrated, she reached around him and pulled the pistol from his holster. She fired two rounds into the air.
The blasts reverberated off the surrounding mountains. Startled, Bill released his chokehold. Mulder dropped to the ground, coughing and gasping for air. Sweat and blood slicked his bruised skin.
"He didn't do this to me!" Dana shouted, pointing to her black eye. "I was thrown from my horse. Mr. Mulder saved my life! You should all be ashamed of yourselves for assuming the worst."
Frowning, Bill slapped dust from his trousers and gathered his hat, which had fallen during the fight. He returned to his horse, but did not climb on.
"Let me go, Lieutenant!" Dana demanded.
This time, he released her. She slid from his horse and ran to Mulder as fast as her injured ankle allowed.
"Get back on Skinner's horse, Dana! Now!" Bill shouted.
Dana ignored him and extended a hand to Mulder. He took it and let her pull him to his feet. Bill and Charlie drew their guns.
"You can put those away," she barked. Turning to Mulder, she gently wiped blood from his lower lip with her thumb. "You're hurt."
He ducked away from her hand. "I've survived worse."
"You need stitches."
"And you need to go home, Doctor Scully." He spat blood into the dust.
"I can help you."
"I don't think so. Go home."
She hated to leave him like this, beaten and wrongly accused.
"Will I see you again?" she asked, realizing she wanted to, very much.
He glanced from Bill to Skinner. "I'll be around."
Foregoing any further goodbyes, he limped to his horse, hauled himself stiffly into the saddle, and rode away.
Continued in Chapter 9
THE MOUNTAIN MAN