“Our state cannot be severed, we are one,
One flesh; to lose thee were to lose myself.”
- John Milton, Paradise Lost
May 20th, 1856
I hope that this letter finds you in good health & spirits. I had hoped to send this letter from some outpost farther west with news of our progress, but our departure from Independence is delayed, owing to Father’s illness. He was stricken with cholera, which swept through the camp within the first days of our arrival last month. I spent my waking hours at his side and at the bedsides of many of the afflicted, doing what I could to ease their suffering by administering camphor and laudanum. It is a swift, unseen destroyer which claimed many lives, but by the Grace of Divine Providence, Father was spared and has now made a full recovery.
His prolonged convalescence prevented us from leaving with the majority of the wagon parties. We are now several weeks behind, but Father insists that we can make good time and catch up with the main body. As it is, we are set to leave on the morrow, and hope to make Fort Kearny by early June.
Charlie speaks incessantly of his desire to ‘see the elephant,’ a term which I’ve come to understand conveys the vast, indescribable landscape of our forthcoming journey. For myself, I must confess an apprehension about venturing into such wild, untamed country without the relative safety of others to accompany us. Stories of Indians and marauders are rife among the emigrants and townspeople here, but Father is insistent on our departure. I think of our dear Mother and Sister, and wish they were here with us as we embark, but they have already undertaken that greatest of journeys and now dwell in Heaven’s verdant pastures.
I pray that the day of our reunion in Oregon Territory comes swiftly. Until then, I remain
Your loving & affectionate Sister,
Captain Fox William Mulder squinted through a pair of tarnished field glasses at the sleeping encampment in the river valley below. The smoke of dying nighttime campfires drifted slowly up through tipi openings. A large herd of horses grazed lazily on the far side of the camp. He’d counted nearly fifty lodges; a fairly large camp by Brule Sioux standards. The scene reminded him of a print he’d once seen by the famous Indian painter, George Catlin: a pastoral idyllic in the pre-dawn light. Not for long, he thought dismally, lowering his glasses and glancing behind him to where the soldiers of Company K of the United States Second Dragoons waited on impatient mounts. Behind them were six companies of the US Sixth infantry.
His own horse, Ghost, snorted anxiously, sharing in the growing tension of men and animals. Mulder had participated in several Indian campaigns in his seven years with the Second Dragoons - most recently against the Comanche down in Texas. The outcomes of those battles had never plagued his conscience. Their adversaries had wrought indiscriminate havoc and terror upon settlers and other Indian tribes; the justice meted out to the Comanche had been harsh, yet commensurate with their atrocities. But this, he mused uneasily, casting his eyes once more upon the unsuspecting camp, this was different. The Sioux had, until recently, given little trouble to Americans passing through their land.
The Army had sent General Harney and his forces to “whip the Indians” in response to the Sioux killing of Lieutenant John Grattan and his men the year before. But the details surrounding Grattan’s death were murky, at best, and there was some question whether the Sioux had been provoked into attacking; Grattan had a reputation for being hot-headed and was inexperienced in dealing with Indians. The Sioux may have shot Grattan, but it was widely believed, even back in Washington, that the fool had instigated the affair and had gotten himself and his men killed by a needless escalation of force and poor discipline.
Despite the uncertainty, the order to avenge the “Grattan Massacre,” as it was now being called, had come down from on high, and the Second Dragoons were dispatched from Fort Kearny to join Harney and his forces to punish the Sioux. After nearly a month of hard travel across the parched Nebraskan prairie in the punishing summer heat, they had finally located the Sioux camp here at Ash Hollow, a quiet, tree-filled valley along the Platte River.
Most of the Brule war party, including their chief, Little Thunder, were away from the camp. They had left in good faith to parlay with the US Army, but the party of soldiers they were meeting was a diversion sent by Harney. Now, the camp was virtually defenseless - exactly how Harney had planned it. There would be no parlay, no truce, today, he thought with an appalling sense of dread. Only bloodshed. His own blood ran cold at the thought.
Harney stood a few hundred yards away, flanked by two aides. His tall frame and white beard made for an imposing figure atop his black horse. All eyes were on him for the signal to attack. Presently, Harney drew his saber, raised it, then swung it towards the ground in a single, decisive stroke.
Reluctantly, Mulder drew his sword and spurred Ghost forward to join the throng of blue and black jackets streaming down the hill.
As they closed the distance, he could see faces peeking out of tipis - mostly women and children. The expressions turned from curious to panicked as they saw the oncoming line of men and horses.
“Wasichu! Wasichu!” Mulder recognized the Sioux word for “white man” echo throughout the camp. Their cries vanished amid the noise of stampeding hooves and the relentless thunder of rifles and revolvers.
Screams drifted upward through the gunfire as naked and buckskin-clad women, many with babies in their arms, rushed from their lodges away from the soldiers. Children followed, looking back now and again in fear and confusion. A few men, mostly old-timers and boys too young to join the war party, ran out to meet the attackers with bows and flintlocks, but were quickly mowed down by the superior firepower of the soldiers. He charged through the camp, weaving through lodges, bodies, and soldiers, unable to bring himself to swing his saber or fire his weapon. I’d rather be thought a coward than to take part in this mindless slaughter, he thought grimly, as he maneuvered Ghost through a small stand of trees and up a small hillock on the far side of the camp.
The attack was over in a matter of minutes. Besides the occasional moan of an injured Sioux, a heavy, unnatural silence fell upon the valley. An order was given to search for survivors. Mulder remained in the saddle, watching as the regiment fanned out over the surrounding hills.
“Captain! Over here! I’ve found some!” Away down the hill from Mulder, Sergeant Krycek was waving his hat and gesturing excitedly to him. Mulder rode over to where Krycek and a half dozen men stood with their weapons aimed at a hole in the side of the hill. A cave, he realized. He dismounted to stand beside the sergeant.
“They’re in there, Captain,” Krycek said, the excitement evident in his voice. “I can hear ‘em cryin’.”
Mulder paused and listened. The frightened whimpering of children could be heard from a short distance inside the cave.
“Lower your weapons,” he said. The men didn’t move, their weapons still trained on the cave entrance.
“Come on, Captain, they ain’t nothing but a bunch of animals.” Krycek flashed him a savage grin.
Mulder drew his revolver and pointed it at the sergeant. “Lower your weapons!” he yelled. Krycek glared at him, but he and the others reluctantly backed away from the cave.
Krycek was trouble - his spiteful and cruel nature was well known throughout the regiment - but since he hadn’t disobeyed his order, there was little Mulder could do to discipline him.
Mulder holstered his weapon and turned to a small man with glasses. “Private Burks, you know Sioux, don’t you?”
The short man bobbed his head. “A little, yes, sir.”
“Tell them to come out of the cave. Tell them that we won’t harm them.” Burks stepped forward hesitantly.
“Belay that order.” The voice of General Harney boomed behind Mulder. Harney, his aides, and a small contingent of infantrymen had gathered around the cave entrance.
“Sir,” Mulder interjected. “There are women and children in there.”
“There could also be a dozen warriors down there with them, waiting to ambush us. I will not risk the life of my men, Captain.”
Mulder knew the risk to be overblown. “Sir -”
Harney cut him off with a sharp gesture of his hand. “Sergeant, have your men open fire.”
Krycek gave him a vicious smile, then gave the order for the soldiers to line up in front of the cave. Mulder watched helplessly as they opened fired into the cave. The deafening echo of rifles rippled through the valley. The voices in the cave fell silent.
An order was given by one of Harney’s aides to clear the cave of bodies and check for survivors. One by one, the bodies of five women, six children, and three infants were pulled out and laid in a shallow depression beside the cave opening.
“Just as well,” Harney said, glancing disdainfully at the bodies as he brushed dirt from a gilded jacket sleeve. “Nits make lice.”
Mulder’s stomach churned at the grisly sight: tiny hands covered in blood, eyes that once glimmered with carefree delight now sightless. His head became light, and his legs suddenly felt like gelatin. Faintly, as if from a great distance, he heard the bugle call to fall back into formation, but he remained motionless besides the empty cave and bodies.
The sun had risen and the last of the soldiers faded beyond the horizon when Mulder dropped to his knees and vomited.
Author's Note: The massacre mentioned in this chapter is based on the actual Ash Creek/Blue Water Creek Massacre, which took place on 3 September, 1855. The attack was retribution for the "Grattan Massacre" in August 1854 and for subsequent raids by the Lakota. At Ash Hollow, 600 soldiers of the US Army under the command of General William Harney attacked 250 Sioux. About half of the 86 Sioux killed that day were women and children. As one New York Times correspondent put it, "The so-called battle was simply a massacre, but whether those Indians were really the same who have cut off emigrant trains with so many circumstances of savage cruelty, or whether it is possible to distinguish between the innocent and the guilty in retaliating these outrages, are points on which we have no reliable information."
I respectfully address you on the matter regarding my continued service under your command. Events have transpired which have caused me to question my fitness and willingness to serve in my current capacity as Captain of Company “K” Second Dragoons. I herewith tender my resignation of my commission, to take effect immediately and unconditionally.
Fox William Mulder
Capt. Co. “K” 2d Dragoons U.S.A.
June 16th, 1856
The sun beat down oppressively as Mulder passed through the gates of Kearny’s stockade and into the small, dusty town that had grown up in the shadow of the fort. He pushed open the door to Frohike’s Fine Goods and Provisions and entered the blessed shade and coolness of the shop.
From behind the counter, the balding, diminutive proprietor looked up from a months-old, yellowed issue of Harper’s Weekly. He squinted at Mulder through half-moon eyeglasses. “That you, Captain Mulder?”
“Yes, but not for much longer, Melvin. In two days’ time, I’ll be plain old ‘Mulder.’”
“Had enough of the frontier life, have you?” Frohike asked teasingly. “Miss the luxuries of a soft feather bed and a woman to keep you warm at night?”
“If I did, I’d have married you years ago.” It was a well-known secret that Frohike’s personal quarters at the back of the store was furnished with every modern comfort and luxury - all of it financed by the exorbitant prices he charged unwitting emigrants and spendthrift soldiers.
Frohike rolled his eyes at Mulder’s good-natured ribbing.
“Truthfully, Melvin,” Mulder said, his tone becoming serious, “I resigned my commission.”
Frohike’s face turned grave. “I heard about Ash Hollow. Can’t say much about them who would slaughter women and children, Indian or not. You’re a good man, Mulder. I’m sorry to see you leave like this.”
“As am I,” Mulder said, smiling sadly at the man who had become the closest thing he had to a friend during his time at the fort. “I’m in need of provisions. And,” he said, remembering the state of his civilian clothes, “some new attire.” What spare clothes he did have were moth-eaten and too large for him; years of living off Army rations and bison had made him leaner than when he’d first arrived from the East.
“If there’s anything I enjoy more than your company, Mulder, it’s your money,” Frohike said, jumping from his perch behind the counter and walking over to the small selection of shirts and trousers.
“Heading back East, I assume? Take up the family business?”
“No,” Mulder said, trying banish the image of his father, and the disappointed look on his face when Mulder told him he was entering West Point to earn an Army commission. He’d wanted Mulder to practice law, like he had. But the war with Mexico had captured young Mulder’s imagination, and he entertained boyish daydreams of earning glory on the battlefield. So he’d applied to the United States Military Academy. Never did he imagine that glory could be so one-sided and bloody.
His pause earned an inquisitive look from Frohike.
“I’m headed west,” Mulder went on to explain. “Maybe California. Or New Mexico. Anywhere but here.”
“Well, you picked a hell of a time to leave,” Frohike said. “Most of the emigrant trains passed through here a month ago.”
As he spoke, a lone cart with a team of four oxen passed in front of the store window. “As I was saying,” Frohike said, watching them go by with a frown, “most of them. Those folks will be lucky to make Fort Bridger by the first big snow.”
“I can make good time just myself and Ghost. If I need to lay by at Bridger or some other outpost for the winter, so be it. I’m in no hurry to get there - wherever there is.”
He handed Frohike a list of his requests. The older man nodded approvingly as he scanned the items. “I’ll have everything ready for you by this time tomorrow.”
Frohike quickly held up a hand. “Just a moment,” he said, then reached behind the counter and produced a small, bulging burlap sack. “A parting gift,” he said as he handed it to Mulder. He looked inside, and smiled at the sight of sunflower seeds.
“My thanks, as always, Melvin,” he said, and shook the man’s hand fondly.
Mulder stepped outside into the oppressive June heat as a small woman in a bonnet arrived in front of the shop. He quickly moved to open the door for her.
“Thank you,” she said, glancing up at him as she passed. Intelligent blue eyes met his. Mud and dust clung to the hem of her pale green dress, and her shoes bore evidence of miles of travel. Despite her well-worn attire, he found her remarkably beautiful and strangely familiar, and had to make a conscious effort to avoid staring longer than was appropriate.
He touched his hat in greeting. “Ma’am.”
She nodded politely, then disappeared into Frohike’s. Must be from that lone wagon party, he thought, glancing up the street. Sure enough, the wagon stood in the shade of the livery stable. The oxen stood unharnessed, taking long draws from the water trough. Frohike was right, he thought - at this rate, they would be hard-pressed to catch up with the mass of wagon trains.
He set out at first light two days later on the dusty, wheel-rutted road that led westward. The sparse, overgrazed vegetation that surrounded the fort presently gave way to a lush, waving sea of waist-high prairie grass. Above him, swallows swooped and dove in the mid-morning sun in search of insects. Their intricate acrobatics and constant twittering provided a welcome diversion from the images of dead Sioux that plagued his dreams and lingered increasingly into his waking hours. He felt his heart grow lighter with every mile he put between him and the fort. He even started singing one of his favorite tunes:
“I'm lonesome since I crossed the hill
And over the moor that's sedgy
Such lonely thoughts my heart do fill
Since parting with my Sally
I seek for one as fair and gay
But find none to remind me
How sweet the hours I passed away
With the girl I left behind me”
Ghost snorted in agitation at his rider’s crooning. Mulder laughed and patted his neck affectionately.
“You’re right, boy. I can’t carry a tune. And I don’t even have a girl.”
He did, once. He’d fallen for the beautiful Diana Fowley when he was a cadet at West Point. The war with Mexico had raised the prestige of the Army in the eyes of the nation, and it became fashionable for a woman to be seen on the arm of a dashing young cadet. But the war ended, and when it became clear that she’d have to trade the comfort of New York City for the privations of the frontier, Diana had called off the engagement. She’d only loved him for his uniform, he’d realized too late, and the attention it afforded her within New York society.
And so, with a broken heart and a feeling of having played the fool, Mulder accepted his commission as a Second Lieutenant with the Second Dragoons and set off for the borderlands of the newly formed Republic of Texas. The pain of Diana’s rejection had eased with the change of scenery and the passage of time. He soon realized that the frontier held more opportunities for a man to avail himself of a woman’s pleasures than were afforded a young man among the New York elite. The forts had their fair share of women with questionable morals who were ready to bed any soldier with coin, but his infrequent encounters with such women always left him feeling empty and miserable, and soon he’d stopped visiting brothels altogether.
But if one had to feel empty, the Plains were a fitting place in which to find oneself, he’d discovered as the years went on. In his early days with the regiment, he’d developed a reputation as a loner, often volunteering to go out on solo patrols for weeks at a time. He could ride for days without seeing another soul, and that suited him just fine. Promotion through the ranks had decreased his opportunity to roam, and he found the responsibilities of an officer dull and tiresome. Out among the vast grasslands and rolling hills, he had found solitude, not loneliness; solace instead of restlessness. Now that he was free of the constraints of Army life, he prayed that freedom would be enough to exorcise the demons of Ash Hollow.
After a hurried midday meal taken under the slight shade of an eroded hillside, Mulder set Ghost back on the trail. He’d glance down at the trail every now and again to try to decipher the signs of those who had passed before him. Newer wheel tracks and fresh ox dung told him that a wagon had passed by not long ago. Probably the same party that had stopped over at the fort a few days prior. What’s more, he noticed, leaning over in his saddle for a better look, riders - three, perhaps four - had also used the trail after the wagon. The tell-tale U-shaped prints told him that the riders were white; Indians didn’t shod their horses, instead switching out mounts so as not to tire or injure them.
After a few miles, he crested a hill. What he saw on the other side caused him to immediately drew up on the reins to bring Ghost to a halt. He jumped down and pulled Ghost back down the hill until he was out of sight, then drawing his revolver, slowly crawled back to the top.
At the foot of the hill on the other side stood the wagon he’d seen pass through the fort; its contents were scattered on the ground nearby. The four oxen, still yoked, lay dead. He could detect no movement, no other signs of life. Carefully, he made his way down the hill to cart, using the tall grass as cover until he reached the cart. Mulder noticed arrows scattered about the ground, but curiously, they all faced in different directions, as if someone had haphazardly tossed a quiverfull up in the air and let them fall. Even odder: the oxen had all been shot by a small caliber pistol - not the firearm of choice by Plains Tribes, who much preferred rifles.
It took him a moment to notice the two bodies amid the tall grass. A bald, older man lay beside a younger, pimple-faced boy. Both had been shot and both, he saw with a sickening twist in his stomach, had been scalped. Whoever had done the scalping had botched it on the older man; his scalp was still partially attached to his skull. With rising dread, he frantically looked about for the woman he knew belonged to the the party - the woman with whom he briefly exchanged courtesies outside of Frohike’s.
As if in reply, a woman’s scream shattered the expansive stillness of the prairie. Mulder drew his revolver and sprinted down a small ravine in the direction of the scream.
Two men stood close together, laughing and cheering as they watched a third man struggling with something on the ground. The men were shirtless, their faces and chests painted in red and black paint. At first, Mulder took them for Indians, then one of them spoke.
“Come here and hold her down,” the man on the ground yelled in English. “She’s a feisty one.”
Mulder stiffened at the familiar voice of Sergeant Krycek. He squinted at the other men; beneath the copious red and black face paint, he recognized Private Colton and Corporal Kersh. Like Krycek, the two men had a poor reputation among the Kearney detachment: he recalled Colton had once been confined to quarters on bread and water rations for a month for attempting to steal a milk cow from an emigrant family passing through the fort.
“As long as you leave some of her for me,” Colton answered with a leer. He bent down and grabbed the woman’s arms, pulling them roughly above her head. Krycek paused to unbutton his trousers, leaving just enough opportunity for the woman to deliver a well-placed kick to his face; he fell hard on his ass, raising a laugh from Colton and the other soldier.
“Bitch!” he said, spitting out a mouthful of blood and stumbling to his feet. “You’ll wish I killed you with your father and brother, before I’m done with you.”
Krycek had barely taken a step forward before Mulder fired. The sergeant’s stomach suddenly blossomed crimson, and he staggered backwards before dropping to the ground.
Colton let go of the woman and whirled to face Mulder, his gun drawn. Kersh managed to get a shot off at Mulder; he winced at the sudden, searing pain in his left arm.
Before Kersh could fire again, another shot rang out, and he collapsed. Colton, confused, glanced down at the corporal. That bought Mulder just enough time to take aim at Colton. He fired. The private fell on top of Kersh.
Mulder ran over to the woman. She lay shaking, gasping on the ground. In her hands was Krycek’s revolver. Smoke curled upwards from the barrel. He helped her to her feet. She stared, shocked, at the weapon, then at the men who lay dead at her feet.
Before either could speak, a groan caused Mulder to turn away. Krycek was still alive; his breathing came in ragged gasps as he lay on the ground nearby, grasping at his bleeding stomach. Mulder stood over him. Krycek’s eyes focused on him and widened in recognition.
“Please, Captain, have mercy,” he said weakly between bloody coughs. “Have mercy.”
He was a dead man - it was only a matter of time before he succumbed to blood loss. But a gunshot wound to the stomach was painful, and often resulted in a slow death; anger rose within Mulder at all of the needless suffering and death this man had inflicted. He wanted to walk away and leave Krycek to a prolonged, agonizing demise.
Instead, Mulder pointed his gun at the sergeant. “The only mercy you’ll get from me is a quick death,” he said, his voice iron-edged, as he cocked the hammer with his thumb. Krycek whimpered. The air reverberated with the sharp crack of his Colt.
He holstered his gun and walked back to where the woman stood. Wordlessly, he took the revolver from her. She swayed, as if about to faint. He put a hand out to steady her. “Easy does it, ma’am.”
She didn’t fall, but instead took his hand in a tight, vice-like grip. He squeezed back, causing her to look up at him. Her eyes registered shock, surprise - and fear.
“It’s alright, ma’am,” he said gently. “You’re safe.”
Her eyes focused on him as if truly seeing him for the first time. She took several deep breaths in an attempt to calm herself. He felt her hand slip from his.
“I must bury my father and brother,” she said, composing herself. Her face, although tear-stained and smeared with dirt, was set with a firmness and resolve that surprised him.
“Allow me to pay my respects by assisting you,” he said.
She hesitated, as if unsure whether to trust him, but presently gave brief nod of assent. Without speaking, she turned and headed in the direction of the cart and her dead kin.
Mulder picked up the dead men’s weapons and followed. Behind them, the shirtless, painted bodies of the soldiers lay staring upwards at the expansive sky.
Mulder found a small spade among the wreckage of the cart. His arm burned from the bullet that had grazed it, but he did his best to ignore the pain as he focused on digging graves for the murdered man and boy.
The woman resolved herself to the grim task of preparing the bodies of her father and brother for burial. She tenderly rinsed the blood and dirt from their faces and hands and dressed them in clean clothes which she’d retrieved from the cart.
Mulder cast occasional glances over at her while he dug. She was a small woman, but carried herself in a manner that evinced a sense of confidence and strength. A mighty fierce strength, he thought, reflecting on her deadly actions that had saved both of them.
Other thoughts troubled his mind, notably the dead men. He’d heard stories of soldiers raiding wagon parties dressed as Indians, but he’d always considered them to be the fanciful rumors of idle, fort-bound troops. And yet the bodies of Krycek, Colton, and Kersh - dressed in filthy buckskin breeches and covered in paint to mask their pale skin - lay just over the hill. Maybe they had believed the stories, and decided that the woman and her small party were easy targets, he mused. Scalping the men would make it seem like an attack by Indians. And the woman, too, he realized with a sinking feeling, once they had finished having their way with her. There could be no witnesses.
That men from his own regiment could be responsible for such an act sickened him. No, he reminded himself harshly, you knew full well what they were capable of doing. You saw what they did at Ash Hollow. And what did you do to stop them? Nothing. If anyone is responsible for this tragedy, it’s you. Anger and guilt rose within him with every dry spadeful of dirt.
The sun sat low on the western horizon by the time Mulder dropped the last spadeful of dirt onto the older man’s grave. They stood silently facing the two dark mounds of earth. The only prayer spoken was the mournful song of a lone blackbird hidden in the meadow and the wind through the tall grass.
After several minutes, the woman finally turned to him and spoke. “I’d like to thank you, sir, but I’m afraid I don’t know your name.”
“It’s Mulder, ma’am. Captain Fox William Mulder, formerly of the US Second Dragoons.” He tipped his hat cordially. “You may not recall, but we met briefly at Kearny a couple days ago.”
“Yes, I remember. Thank you, Captain Mulder.”
“No need to thank me, Miss…”
“Scully. Dana Scully.”
“Miss Scully. If I may say so, ma’am,” he continued, “that was one hell of a shot back there.”
She fixed him with an even look, and he remembered him that he was no longer among soldiers, and that such a comment might not be perceived as a compliment - especially under these circumstances.
“The urgency of the moment necessitated it, Captain Mulder,” she replied matter-of-factly. “My life - and yours - was at stake.”
Feeling slightly chastised for his impertinence, he blushed and nodded silently.
“Those savages set upon us while we were stopped to fix a broken wheel spoke.”
Mulder winced at the epithet, recalling the massacre at Ash Hollow, and the identities of the men who lay dead beyond the hill.
“Those weren’t Indians, ma’am,” he said gravely.
“Yes, I realized that the moment one of them told me in English what he intended to do with me,” she said scathingly, and he immediately felt foolish for his patronizing words. “Savages exist among all races of men.” Her blue eyes met his. They glinted with that same sharp intelligence he’d first seen back in Kearny, but this time, there was also a fierceness that took him aback.
“That they do, ma’am,” he replied, feeling humbled. His increasing admiration for the woman’s spirit was tempered by the knowledge that his next words would undoubtedly earn him more of her wrath. “It grieves me to say they were soldiers from my regiment.”
Her eyes flashed for the briefest of seconds. “I see,” was all she said in response. Her face assumed a sphinx-like inscrutability, and he realized - with some degree of relief - that no more would be said about the matter.
She turned her attention to his arm, and the now blood-soaked bandana around it. “Let me attend to that gunshot wound, Captain.”
“No need, ma’am. The bullet just grazed my arm. Doesn’t hurt much.” It was a lie. The pain was in fact becoming impossible to ignore, and he regretted not purchasing a bottle of whiskey from Frohike before setting out.
“Please, Captain, I insist. I’ve seen what happens when wounds - even scratches - get infected.” She spoke in a tone that permitted no argument.
Reluctantly, he let her take a look at the wound. She unwound the bloody, makeshift bandage and prodded the area around the wound with small yet strong fingers. He was unable to hide a grimace.
“This will need a suture,” she declared, striding over to where a dusty black leather bag lay among the wreckage of the wagon. She rummaged around in it and pulled out a small sewing kit and a bottle of ointment.
She had him rest against a nearby cottonwood stump as she proceeded to clean the wound with water from a canteen, then smeared a generous amount of a slightly sticky, dark orange substance over the affected area.
He winced as she pushed the needle through his tender flesh.
“Won’t hurt but for a bit,” she said in response to his reaction. “It’s a small wound, thankfully.”
He glanced down at her, wondering if she was mocking him, but her face was all business as she drew the needle and thread back and forth over his wound. He attempted to distract himself from the pain by taking in her features. High cheekbones added a pleasing depth to a narrow face and freckles dotted her fair skin.Her hair was pulled back into a messy bun. A few stray strands of copper-colored hair dangled in front of her face, which she’d occasionally pause to tuck behind an ear as she worked. A beautiful woman, he admitted.
She finished quickly, and he was surprised to see a small, neat row of black Xs where the gash used to be.
Even more surprising was the bottle of whiskey she handed to him after she re-dressed his arm. “For the pain,” she said. He thought he detected a hint of irony in her voice.
He accepted the bottle gratefully and took a swig, feeling a warm, burning sensation as the drink traveled down his throat to settle in his stomach. He put the stopper on the bottle and handed it back to her. His eyes widened in astonishment as she deftly uncorked it and took an even longer draught than he had.
“Thank you, Miss Scully,” he said as he gingerly rolled down his shirt sleeve to cover the wound.
“It’s no trouble, Captain,” she said. She passed the bottle back to him and he took another draw.
“You have quite the skill, putting thread and needle to flesh.”
“My father was a physician back in Maryland. He taught me the medical profession as best he could.” Her voice was flat, but he noticed a pained look pass across her face at the memory of her now-deceased father.
“Well, this patient is grateful for the attentive care.” This earned him a small smile as she put away her instruments.
Mulder cut the oxen loose from the cart and with her help, pushed the cart some distance from the dead animals. He then proceeded to build a fire from some of the splintered supply boxes. They soon faced each other across the comforting warmth and glow of the flames. Mulder fried a few rashers of bacon, of which the woman only ate a small portion.
“So tell me, Miss Scully, how did you and your family come to journey alone on the Emigrant Trail?” He was careful with his tone, to give the impression that he asked the question not to condemn, but rather to learn more about her circumstances.
“Father took ill when we arrived at Independence. We missed the emigrant trains, but he is…,” she trailed off, swallowed hard in an attempt to compose herself, then continued. “He was stubborn, and didn’t want to spend a year languishing before the next trains left. Once he recovered, he insisted that we press on in the hope that we catch up to a wagon train.” She paused, staring at the fire. Her eyes shone with unshed tears in the fire’s glow. “Now he and Charlie are both gone.”
He wanted to comfort her - to put his arm around her and provide some measure of consolation - but thought better of it. From the short time he’d known her, she didn’t strike him as a particularly sentimental woman. And he did not want her to mistake his intentions - especially after what she’d endured today.
“Do you have kin to return to?” he asked instead, his tone gentle.
“My mother died giving birth to Charlie. My older sister, Missy, succumbed to scarlet fever two years later.” She said the words matter-of-factly, still staring at the fire. “My older brother, Bill, signed onto a merchant ship out of Baltimore. He sent word a year ago that he was in Portland, in the Oregon Territory, and that we should join him. So we left Maryland and made our way to Independence to join the westward trains.”
She paused and glanced uncertainly at him, as if deciding how much more to share with him.
“Father had planned to open a medical practice in Oregon,” she continued. “I suppose that is what I will do, once I get there. I hear that out West, they’re not too particular about who holds a scalpel.”
“With respect, Miss Scully, the Plains are no place for a person to travel alone, especially a woman.” He was amazed she had even broached the idea, given the events of the day.
She flashed an resentful look at him. “I am well aware of that fact, Captain Mulder. But given the circumstances, I am afraid I do not have the luxury of choice. My only kin is somewhere, out there.” Here she pointed west, where the sky still glowed with the sun’s last rays. “And I intend to find him. Besides,” she said, raising a scornful eyebrow, “I am loathe to take advice from someone who doesn’t heed his own.”
This jab at Mulder’s character was held in check by his increasing admiration of the woman’s stubborn spirit.
“I do not doubt your will or determination, ma’am.” He spoke quietly in an attempt to avoid further aggravating her. “And you are right to point out the hypocrisy of my position. However, I am accustomed to the hazards and hardships of the Plains.”
He prevented her from interrupting by holding up a hand.
“With your permission, I’d like to accompany you to Fort Laramie. From there, you can inquire about joining an emigrant train. And if they’ve all left, then I’d see to it that you were provided for over the winter, and you could resume your journey come spring.”
“You need not trouble yourself further on my account, Captain. You saved my life, for which I am eternally grateful. But my troubles have inconvenienced you enough for a lifetime.” Her voice was clear, but he could see her eyes shining with unshed tears in the firelight.
“The men responsible for your troubles, as you call it, came from my regiment, Miss Scully. A fact which grieves me to no end. If there is anyone who deserves blame for the deaths of your father and brother, it’s me.” He spoke quietly yet empathically, forcing her to meet his gaze. “They now await their Final Judgement, but I am obliged to set things right by you, as far as I am able.”
Unable to muster a counter to this, she merely nodded, then sighed wearily and passed a hand over her eyes. It was then that Mulder realized just how exhausted he was; his entire body ached and his eyelids felt like someone had attached lead weights to them.
“It has been a day of sorrow, and we have a long day ahead of us,” he said after a moment. “Sleep will do both of us some good.”
He watched as she retired to the privacy and relative comfort of the wagon, then retrieved his bedroll from the saddlebag and stretched out beside the fire. Within minutes, he was asleep.
She awoke to the sound of snorting horses and the enticing aroma of coffee. She glanced around in search of the familiar form of her snoring brother, then listened for her father’s soft whistling as he went about his morning task of gathering and hitching the oxen. It was a few seconds before she recalled the horrors of the day before, and her stomach lurched. She could hear the man - Captain Mulder, she remembered - moving about outside.
She looked down at herself and the clothes she had fallen asleep in; her dress was torn in several places, and she swallowed, now even more nauseous, at the blood stains that covered the front of her dress. With a haste that bordered on panic, she shed her ruined clothes and replaced it with a long, olive skirt and white cotton blouse - the only other set of clothes she’d taken on the journey - and shakily climbed down from the wagon.
Mulder was squatting besides a small cook fire in the early morning sunshine.
“Mornin’, ma’am,” he said, standing at her approach. “Figured I’d let you sleep a bit while I took stock of what to take with us.” He offered her a steaming tin cup of heavily sugared coffee whose aroma no longer held any appeal to her. She forced herself to take a sip, however, and accepted a piece of brick-like hardtack, which she dipped in the coffee to soften.
“Take with us?” she asked, and glanced over to where the three horses that had belonged to the soldiers stood hitched to the side of the wagon beside the Captain’s white horse. He must have fetched them while she’d slept.
“These horses won’t pull a wagon, and even if they could, this wagon’s too heavy for them,” he said, offering an explanation to her second, unspoken question.
“I’m afraid we’ll have to leave most of this behind,” he said, gesturing to the various crates, barrels, and sacks he’d gathered from the wreckage. “But we can re-provision at Laramie. It’s three hundred miles from here to the fort. I reckon we can make the journey in two weeks, provided the weather holds.”
She glanced up at the sky. Besides a few distant wisps of clouds and the newly risen sun, the sky was empty, a massive blue bowl that stretched in all directions above their heads.
Perhaps it’s just as well, she thought, gazing upon the heap of possessions - some of them dear to her - that spoke of a life that as of yesterday, ceased to exist. She felt groundless, adrift, and desperate to regain some footing on dry land.
Her eyes fell on a small crate of assorted ointments, powders, and tonics. “At the very least, I’ll need my father’s medical instruments and medicines,” she said, finally finding something on which to anchor herself. Father had intended to pay their way across the continent by signing on as a physician for a wagon party; she intended to do the same when she reached Laramie.
Mulder followed her gaze to the crate and moved to lift it. She rushed over to him.
“Please don’t trouble yourself, Captain. The contents are quite fragile. I can manage,” she insisted, trying to take the box away from him.
He refused to let go. She glared up at him. Amused, hazel eyes met hers.
“Yes, ma’am. Of that I have no doubt,” he said. The faintest trace of a smile played behind his beard as he spoke. “You’re not accustomed to having help, are you?”
“No, I suppose I am not,” she admitted grudgingly, still not letting go. “Nor am I accustomed to being the subject of mockery.”
Her father had been a kind and affectionate man, but his medical profession had consumed most of his attention. As the only woman in the family, the tasks of running the household and looking after Charlie had fallen to her. To have someone insist on helping her was as foreign as the broad expanse of prairie on which she now found herself.
“I apologize for my frankness, but I speak with full sincerity. Out here, an extra pair of hands can mean the difference between life and death,” he said. “Especially hands that are skilled in ministering to the sick and injured.”
She stood silent, unable to muster a counter to his words. Besides her father and brothers, no man had ever spoken to her as forthrightly.
“We’re both of us in this together now, Miss Scully,” he continued, his eyes meeting hers in a serious gaze. “We’re going to have to trust each other.”
“I suppose you’re right, Captain,” she said, relaxing her grip on the crate.
“You have my word that I will handle this with utmost care,” he promised, and gently lifted the box from her hands.
She watched in him the bright morning light as he skillfully secured the crate of medicine to the back of one of the horses. A full mustache and beard complemented a prominent nose and square chin. Brown, close-cropped hair peeked out from beneath his broad-brimmed cavalry hat. His shirtsleeves were rolled above his elbows, revealing muscular, tanned forearms. His tall, lean frame made for an attractive figure, she admitted, and she guessed him to be a few years older than her twenty-eight years. There was a feeling of familiarity about him that she couldn’t place. She was certain that but for their brief meeting at Kearny, she had never before encountered him, and yet a strong sense remained that she knew him from somewhere.
He glanced up from the horse in her direction, and she quickly averted her gaze. Stop gawking at him like a girl at county ball, you ninny, she admonished. Hastily, she climbed back into the cart in search of suitable supplies for the journey.
She picked up her dusty bonnet from the floor of the wagon, considering it, then let it fall. She’d never cared for bonnets; they were uncomfortable, owing to the strings that had to be fastened tightly beneath the chin. More irritatingly, they restricted peripheral vision. But to go bareheaded in this land was to invite sunburn and heat exhaustion.
She looked around for a suitable substitute. Charlie’s brown, weather-beaten felt hat hung from a peg near the front of the wagon. He’d taken it off when he’d crawled beneath the wagon to help Father repair the wheel. The soldiers had attacked just minutes afterwards.
Hesitatingly, she took the hat, turning it gently in her hands. Tears filled her eyes as she remembered her younger brother, his easy-going, playful nature, his love of birds, his excitement of setting out westward, and of the promised reunion with his older brother in Oregon.
“We’ll all be together again, someday,” she whispered, running her fingers over the brim. She tried it on. To her surprise, it fit her well.
She pulled her father’s oilskin jacket from his trunk, along with his stethoscope and surgical kit, which she wrapped in the jacket. Traces of tobacco and peppermint - the hallmark scents of her father - wafted up from the trunk. She remembered him sitting in his favorite armchair in the parlor of their house in Maryland, his feet propped up on a worn velvet footstool, the smoke from his pipe lazily drifting about his face as he read aloud from a Dickens novel or the works of Tennyson and Browning.
She remembered how he stood close behind her, watching as she set her first broken bone (a boy had fallen from a tree while picking apples and broken his arm). He would occasionally murmur a caution or suggestion as she delicately and precisely manipulated the two halves of the bone so that they closely aligned to their natural, unbroken position. She remembered how he had nodded approvingly when she had finished, how his face beamed with pride as he told her, “you’re a fine surgeon, Dana.”
The Captain had finished loading the horses with foodstuffs and other essentials when she emerged from the cart. She noticed he’d saddled the smallest horse, a handsome sorrel, presumably for her.
He led the horse over to her. “These are cavalry ponies,” he said. “Sturdy and sure-footed. Are you accustomed to the saddle, Miss Scully?”
“It’s been a while, but I used to accompany my father when he made house calls back in Maryland,” she said, taking the reins from him. “I’m sure I can recall the rudiments.”
He pulled out the revolver from a holster on his right side; she noticed he carried another on the left. “This is yours, now,” he said, handing it to her. “I hope you’ll never have to use it again.”
She looked down at the gun. It felt much heavier now in her hands than it had when she’d used it to shoot the marauding soldier. She doubted whether she’d have the same sort of luck with it on another man, if it came to that.
Her face much have registered her doubt, because he smiled reassuringly. “A few sessions of target practice, and you’ll have the hang of it.”
She nodded, still unconvinced. She fumblingly secured it in the saddle holster, then permitted him to assist her onto the horse.
Mulder mounted his own horse, a pale grey Morgan. He held a length of rope to which the packhorses were tethered. With a low whistle and a gentle kick to Ghost, he set the animals on the trail.
She paused after a quarter mile and turned around. The cart was a small white dot among the rippling green prairie grass; she could barely make out the dark mounds that marked the final resting places of her father and brother.
“Farewell.” She let the wind carry the word away across the endless, waving sea of grass, then turned her horse westward.
She had forgotten how hard saddles could be; her lower back and backside ached within the first few hours of setting out. At least her mount proved to be an calm and obliging beast - perhaps he was thankful to finally have a rider who didn’t whip or beat him.
They rode side-by-side so that neither of them had to choke on the other’s dust. The rising heat of day soon had her sweating profusely beneath her hat and dress. Neither spoke much as the morning wore on. But presently - for want of something to focus on other than how hot and sore she was - she spoke.
“So, tell me a little about yourself, Captain.”
“Please, call me Mulder. My Army days are behind me.”
“All right then, Mister Mulder...”
“Just Mulder will do,” he interrupted. “Never cared much for honorifics, least as far as they pertained to me.”
“You do not use your given name?” she asked, mildly astonished at this peculiar admission of casualness from him.
“You wouldn’t either, with a name like Fox,” he said, turning his head and giving her an ironic look.
She smiled. “No, I suppose I wouldn’t,” she replied, and wondered what had possessed his parents to confer such an unusual name. “Please continue, Mulder.”
“Not to much to say, really,” he said. He squinted in the midday glare and shifted in the saddle. “I grew up on the outskirts of New York City. Graduated from West Point just as the war with Mexico was winding down. I spent my first years with the Army down in Texas, patrolling the frontier and protecting homesteaders from Comanche hostiles.”
“And what brought you to Nebraska Territory?”
He didn’t immediately answer, and she wondered if he’d heard the question. Presently, though, he said, “The War Department sent us up here to make sure the Sioux didn’t cause any trouble to the settlers heading west.” Then his voice dropped, and his words took on a somber tone. “In truth, it was the other way ‘round.”
She looked over. His face, partially shaded by his hat brim, was stony, his eyes narrow as he stared straight ahead at the trail. She wondered if there was a connection between his enigmatic words and the reason he was no longer in the Army. But he offered no further explanation, and she sensed it was best to leave the subject alone for the present. Still water runs deep, she recalled her father saying. Trouble them at your own peril.
“And where are you headed now?” she asked, in an attempt to change the conversation.
“Not sure yet. Heard there’s plenty of opportunity in California for a man to make his fortune. I suppose it’s a good a place as anywhere to make a new start.” He paused, then said softly, as if to himself, “that’s what I’m looking for.” He fell silent, and she asked no further questions.
They stopped late in the afternoon and made camp among a stand of cottonwoods beside the Platte River. Mulder strung a picket line for the horses between two of the trees while she set to cooking supper. It was meager fare - beans and bacon - but there was enough for both of them to eat their fill; despite the bone-weariness that came from spending most of the daylight hours in the saddle, she found herself unexpectedly ravenous.
The sun went down and night sounds crept in among the crackling pops of the campfire. Crickets chirped from unseen refuges in the grass. An owl hooted from a nearby tree. The dancing, erratic flames, coupled with the quiet murmuring of the river as it flowed by on its long journey eastward, had a mesmerizing effect.
As sore as she was, as traumatic as the events of the past day and a half had been, she felt herself start to relax back into the familiar rhythm of the trail: long periods of toil and monotony, punctured by short, almost blissful moments of peace and rest.
“It’s the best kind of night.” Mulder’s voice broke the silence, but not the spell of the evening. If anything, his words added a magic of their own to the prairie twilight.
She looked up at him across the leaping flames. Despite the shadows cast by the fire, she could make out a smile playing out across his face.
“The sky is clear, the wind is slight, and the fire is warm.”
“It is peaceful,” she agreed, craning her head to look up at the star-studded sky.
He stretched out on ground, resting his head on his saddle. “There’s enough stars up there to keep a man wondering for a lifetime,” he said, staring upward.
“Wondering about what?” she asked, leaning back on her arms for a better view of the sky.
“Wondering what - who - is out there, among the heavens.”
She couldn’t help but laugh at this outlandish statement. “I find it difficult to believe that an educated man such as yourself would espouse such nonsense.”
This earned a chuckle from him, then he responded:
“ ‘To the terrestrial Moon to be as a star,
Enlightening her by day, as she by night
This Earth-reciprocal, if land be there,
Could not there be fields and inhabitants?’ “
“True,” she answered, “but Raphael went on to warn Adam: ‘Dream not of other worlds, what creatures there live, in what state, condition or degree… Think only what concerns thee and thy being.’ Some things are beyond our knowing, Mulder.”
The pause that followed her reply was all the indication she needed that she’d surprised him; she allowed herself an inward smile of satisfaction at rendering him momentarily speechless.
“My father loved Milton, and would often read him to us on long winter evenings,” she said by way of explanation.
Mulder shifted so that he faced her. His words took on a humble tone. “I see now that I am in the company of not only a physician, but a woman of learning as well. Your point is well made - and well taken, Miss - or I should say - Doctor Scully.”
She was grateful that the light of the fire was dim enough to hide her blushing. Most men she’d encountered treated her with courtesy by virtue of her sex, bordering on the point of deference, and in this regard Mulder was no different. Yet in her experience, such regard was superficial, mere flattery; dig a little deeper, and what was ultimately revealed was the attitude that women were fragile, inferior creatures - both physically and intellectually - good only for the bearing and raising of children. They were objects to be coveted and possessed.
It was a familiar attitude that had played out numerous times in her adult life, and one of the reasons she’d never married. Her training as a physician, even in the informal manner of assisting her father, was viewed as queer by many people back in Maryland, and some had raised questions regarding her feminine modesty and respectability because of it.
Her father had dismissed the naysayers as hidebound fools. “They may not assent to a woman doctor when they’re firmly set in the land of the living,” he had once told her, “but when injury or illness takes them within sight of the Valley of the Shadow, any person - man or woman - with the skill to recall them is viewed as the instrument of Divine Providence.” His words had proved true in Independence, when she was the only doctor willing to go among the cholera-stricken camp to provide what help she could. Many had died, yes, but she had to believe that her efforts did save some.
Mulder was certainly not a hidebound fool. She could detect no trace of condescension in him, neither in his manner nor in his words. He had not tried to coddle her after her assault, and had trusted her enough to attend to his wound. He also had the decency to show surprise and admit his own shortcomings - a rare thing in a man. Even rarer was his presumption True, they had met just yesterday, but she felt a certain ease in his company, as if she’d known him for years.
“Please, call me Scully,” she replied. “This land doesn’t lend itself to the civil manners and pleasantries one is accustomed to back East, and if you prefer to be referred to by just your surname, then I suppose I will adhere to the convention, as well. At least while we travel together.” She found herself surprised by her own words; what on Earth had possessed her to insist that he call her by her surname?
“Scully it is, then,” he affirmed.
Their eyes met across the dancing flames, and for a brief moment, she was convinced that his eyes expressed a similar familiarity - of knowing, of recognition - towards her. A sensation came over her that they had shared this look, this conversation, this very moment, countless times before. Like the ripples made when a stone is dropped into a pool of water, the present seemed to reverberate endlessly outward across time and Heaven. It was at once both disorienting and comforting; disorienting in that she had no reference point on which to anchor this feeling, and comforting due to its seeming insistence that this moment had happened before, and would happen again.
She laid out her dust-laden bedroll beside the fire and stared up at the stars, letting the sound of the river carry her off to the Land of Nod.
The days bled into one another. Another sunrise, another breakfast of coffee and hardtack, another long, hard day on the trail, another supper eaten in exhausted silence. Then bedrolls were spread, “goodnights” exchanged, and they would each quickly drop off to sleep, ready to repeat the cycle the next day.
They had stopped one afternoon to let the horses graze upon a small patch of grass, which seemed to grow scarcer the farther west they traveled. A small clear stream ran nearby - a welcome find in late June. Mulder took the opportunity to pull out the sack of sunflower seeds Frohike had given him and absentmindedly cracked shell after shell. A small, growing heap of empty husks formed near his right boot.
“You’re rather fond of those,” she observed as he let another shell fall to the ground.
“Never took to the pipe or chewing tobacco. I suppose if a man’s afforded a vice or two in his life, this would be mine.”
He reached over and dropped a small handful of seeds into hers, which she accepted with a small smile.
“I can certainly imagine worse habits,” she agreed, popping one into her mouth, then rising to re-fill their canteens from the stream.
He watched as she bent over the stream to let the canteens fill. He admired how quickly she had adapted to life on horseback and the hardships of the trail. Unlike most people - men or women - she seemed at ease out here on the Plains. Her stamina was impressive; even after a twenty-five mile day in the saddle, she would still insist on helping him unsaddle and brush the horses before turning them out to graze, then would set to cooking what she called a “proper supper” of bread, beans, and whatever game Mulder was able to shoot (generally rabbits or prairie chickens). In all the days they’d traveled together, he’d never once heard her utter a complaint, although he knew the miles must take its toll on her body, as they did on him. She’d make an excellent cavalry soldier, he thought, if she were a man.
But she certainly wasn’t a man, that much was clear, as he continued to observe her. She was now splashing water on her face, now her neck, now her hands, using a faded red bandana to wipe away the dust. She sighed audibly at the refreshing coolness on her skin, and he suddenly found himself flush with desire for her. He wondered what it would be like to kiss her sunburned lips, to run his fingers across her fair skin, to lay her down amid the tall grass.
He blushed at this fantasy, and chastised himself for his presumptions. To imagine himself with her was foolish, regardless of how familiar she seemed to him. Their paths would soon part at Laramie: she’d make for Oregon as part of a wagon train, he for some as-yet-unknown destination, with only Ghost for company. It was a depressing thought. For the first time in many years, Mulder felt the heavy weight of loneliness descend upon him.
She finished washing and walked over to him. “Ready?” she asked brightly as she handed him his canteen. Her energy cheered him, and he rose from ground with a smile.
Smoke, screams, blood. He stands in the Sioux camp amid burning lodges and still bodies. Something tugs on his hand. He looks down to see a small girl holding his hand. Her face is burned and bloody. “Takuwe?” she says imploringly. “Takuwe?” She speaks in her own language, but he is able to understand the question: “Why? Why?”
He shakes his head as tears fill his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he says, his voice breaking. “I’m sorry.”
“Mulder. Mulder.” A hand was shaking him. He opened his eyes to see Scully kneeling over him.
He looked around. All that remained of the fire were a few smouldering embers. The moon had risen while he’d slept; its pale light bathed the landscape in an otherworldly glow.
“You were dreaming,” she said. Concern etched her moonlit features.
“I’m fine,” he said, sitting up. “I dreamt a nightmare… something from my past.”
Despite his fear of judgement, he suddenly felt a desire to tell her about what had happened at Ash Hollow.
“My regiment was ordered to locate and destroy a Sioux camp. A camp consisting of only women and children. The men had left to negotiate with a small diversionary force of soldiers. The camp was defenseless.”
She remained silent, waiting for him to continue.
“It was a massacre. I watched my men fire into a cave as the women inside pleaded for their lives and the lives of their children. And I did nothing to stop them. I’m no better than they are.” He swallowed the lump that had suddenly formed in his throat. “I lost faith in mankind that day. I lost faith in myself. I resigned my commission the day we returned to Kearny.”
She took his hand in both of hers. “There was little you could’ve done to have stopped the bloodshed, had you tried.” Kind, sympathetic eyes met his. “That you refrained from the slaughter and feel such remorse tells me that you are in fact a man of good heart and conscience.”
He smiled at her. “Your words give me encouragement, even if the regret remains,” he said, squeezing her hand. “Thank you.”
She smiled, then gently pushed him back down to his bedroll. “Try and get some sleep.”
He dreams again, although this time is quite different than before. Scully, or at least a woman who looks very much like her, stands in front of him. Her dress is curious: she wears what appears to be a man’s suit, although it is of a fashion unfamiliar to him. They are in a room with strange objects; colorful photos of all manner of subjects line the walls. Lights - brighter than any oil lamp - cast a bright glow.
She holds out her hand to him, a friendly smile on her face. “Agent Mulder, I’m Dana Scully,” she says. “I’ve been assigned to work with you.”
A point on the distant horizon caught her eye. A large mountain with a rocky spire rose from the rolling landscape, like a finger pointing towards Heaven's blue dome. “What is that, Mulder?” she asked, pointing.
He answered without looking at where she pointed. “Chimney Rock,” he said. “A good place to stop and let the horses graze.”
They reached the towering monolith around midday. She watched, curious, as he gathered some of the many glass bottles that lay about the ground; clearly this was a favorite stopping point for emigrants.
He set the bottles side-by-side on a gnarled ash log. “These make for good targets,” he said.
“Targets for what, exactly?”
“For you to practice shooting.” He pulled her revolver from the saddle holster and handed it to her, then had her stand a couple of dozen yards away from the log. “Go ahead, give ‘er a shot.”
She pointed the gun at one of the bottles, took aim, and fired. A sharp crack and the sulphurous smell of gunpowder suddenly overwhelmed her senses. It took a moment for the smoke to clear, but when it finally did, the bottle was, frustratingly, still where Mulder had placed in on the log.
He came and stood behind her. He was close - she could feel the warmth radiating from his body. His right hand came alongside hers as he guided her arm to be more in line with the front of her body.
“Widen your stance a bit.” He very gently touched her hip.
In another man, such a presumption of physical affection would have been cause for scandal - and most likely would have prompted a rather un-Christian and unladylike response from her. She recalled the shiner she’d given Marcus Henry when he’d let his hand wander too far south while dancing with her at the Johanson’s Christmas party one year. But Mulder’s touch did not evoke a feeling of transgression; it instead felt pure, intimate - rather like a lover’s first hesitant caress. She did her best to ignore the small involuntary thrill that coursed through her at his touch.
“Aim is one thing, but the trick is keeping still from the moment you take aim ‘till you’re ready to pull the trigger. ” His mouth was close to her ear as he spoke, his face just besides hers.
“Breathe in…” she heard him say, his voice barely above a whisper. She took a breath and did her best to clear her mind. “Hold it… now, fire.”
This time, when the smoke cleared, the bottle had disappeared and shards of brown glass lay scattered about the ground.
“Don’t forget to exhale,” came his voice after a moment. She hadn’t realized she was still holding her breath; she let it out in an indelicate whoosh of air.
He laughed good-naturedly, and she smiled in spite of her embarrassment. They still stood close to each other, so that his hand brushed hers as he raised it to protect his hat from a sudden gust of wind.
He squinted and scanned the horizon. “Looks like we may be in for some rain later,” he said. “We’d best try and find some trees for protection, in case the weather turns ugly.” He strode over to where he’d hobbled the horses and briskly set about making them ready for travel.
She looked up. The sky above them and to the east was clear, but dark clouds loomed to the north and west - the direction from which the wind now blew. They looked to her to be quite distant, but Mulder’s swift movements spoke of the need for haste. She quickly holstered her gun and swung herself up into the saddle. Within minutes, she was back on the trail following Mulder, heading into the wind and the oncoming storm.
The clouds grew in size as the storm drew nearer. She’d never seen such massive, billowing clouds. They piled up on each other in lofty swells, like churned butter. The top of the formation flattened out in a shape akin to an anvil head. Brilliant streaks of veined lightning flashed erratically, illuminating the prairie in a brief, otherworldly glow.
The first raindrops fell just as they reached a dense copse of cottonwood trees and quickly grew in intensity. Together, they rushed to picket the horses and set up Mulder’s small field tent in the gusting, driving rain. Hailstones the size of silver half dollars pelted her as she frantically worked to drive the final tent stake into the ground.
Mulder grabbed her arm and pulled her away from her unfinished task. “Leave it!” He yelled over the gale. They practically dove into the shelter of the canvas roof and walls. She was thoroughly soaked, and so was Mulder; his hair lay damp and matted against his head and his beard glistened with beads of water.
The wind was howling now. The tent shook with every gust, and at one point, she feared it would collapse on them. Water began to collect on one side of the tent in a shallow depression.
“This tent has been through worse storms. She’ll hold,” he said, as if reading her thoughts, but glanced up at the quivering roof as if he didn’t quite believe his own words.
The storm had brought a precipitous drop in temperature and despite her best efforts, she began to shake from the damp and cold. Mulder responded by wrapping his shearling coat over both of them. She didn’t protest when he put his arm around her; she was grateful for the warmth, and if she was honest, for his physical presence in this miserable, frightening weather. If the tent was a shelter, he was a refuge.
“Thank you,” she said through chattering teeth.
He pulled her closer in response. “We’ll keep each other warm,” he murmured in her ear. She allowed herself to rest her head against his chest. It rose and fell steadily as his heart beat a strong waltzing rhythm that distracted her from the incessant drumming of rain against the tent. Her eyes closed and sleep overtook her.
She comes to him in the dark and the rain, knocking urgently on his door. His face is illuminated by candlelight as he admits her.
“I want you to look at something.” She fails to keep her voice from quavering.
He’s clearly confused at her appearance this late at night, but sensing her fear, nods.
She turns her back to him, and undoes the tie on her robe. She pauses, aware of how this may appear to him, just days after their first meeting. But her fear overcomes her modesty, and she drops her robe.
He doesn’t say anything, but crouches and holds the candle near the small of her back. She feels his fingers gently prod the area around the mysterious bumps.
“Mulder, what are they?” Panic threatens to overwhelm her as she waits for what seems like an eternity for his answer
“Mosquito bites,” he says at last, giving her a reassuring smile
She sighs in relief and falls into him. He holds her gently and she realizes that he no longer feels like a stranger.
“Scully.” Mulder’s voice roused her to wakefulness.
Her head was cradled in the hollow of his shoulder; he still held her close. “Storm’s passed. I need to check on the horses,” he said. He gently disentangled himself from her and rose to pull aside a flap of canvas.
She glanced outside. Her eyes widened as she took in the scene of devastation. The ground was a mess of branches, mud, and leaves. A massive cottonwood lay on its side, its roots twisted and curled like giant arthritic fingers.
She followed him out of the sodden, sagging tent. The horses were nowhere to be seen. Mulder whistled for Ghost, but he failed to appear.
“They’ve run off. Shouldn’t have wandered too far.” He spoke easily, apparently unconcerned that their only means of transportation had disappeared in the storm.
He retrieved his rifle from his tent. “Just in case,” he said, giving her a confident wink.
She faked a smile in response, wishing she shared in his lack of worry. She was not given to superstition, but the storm and its destruction had shaken her nerves, and she took the missing horses as further evidence that the relatively good fortune they’d shared since setting out together might have run its course.
“I’ll be back soon.”
She watched anxiously as he trotted away and up over a nearby hill, praying that he’d return soon - safe and with the horses. She did her best to distract herself from her worry by making a fire from what little dry wood she could find, then started on supper.
She wasn’t aware of the Indians until one of their horses snorted.
There were three of them, sitting bareback atop dappled mounts. Strung out behind them were the four missing horses. Her pulse quickened, and she frantically tried to recall how long Mulder had been gone. An hour, at least, perhaps more. The thought of him dead made her chest constrict; she suddenly found it difficult to breathe.
The Indians watched her silently, their faces expressionless. Each carried a bow and quiver of arrows slung across their chest; one of them clutched a rifle. She’d heard stories of what happened to white women at the hands of the Red Man. Hearsay, no doubt, she thought, tales born of fear and ignorance. Nevertheless, she was acutely aware that for the second time she was a woman alone among three armed men. She swallowed nervously, and wished she hadn’t left her gun in the tent.
Pushing down her rising fear, she straightened and took a step in their direction. “I don’t know if you can understand me,” she addressed them, trying to make her voice as loud and clear as possible. “But you are welcome in our camp.” She doubted they understood English, so she made a gesture she hoped was universal enough for them to comprehend: she motioned to the coffee pot and Dutch oven full of beans that hung above the fire. “Please, stay for supper.”
The men exchanged surprised glances with each other. They murmured quietly in their own language, with much back and forth, as if debating whether to take her up on her offer. She tried not to imagine what the alternative might be.
Eventually, one of them - an older man who wore an intricate necklace of animal bones, colored glass beads, and bear claws - looked at her and nodded solemnly in what she took to be an affirmative signal. One by one, they dismounted. One of them cradled his left arm, as if nursing some injury; she noticed him wince as he bumped his shoulder against his horse. He appeared to be the youngest of the three.
She indicated that they should sit around the fire. She poured coffee into her and Mulder’s tin cups and handed one to the man with the necklace. The other she gave to the third, taller one.
She made a motion for them to drink. They did so hesitantly. Both made faces as they tasted the bitter brew. She took the small bag of sugar - which had by some miracle not gotten wet in the storm - and put several generous pinches of it into both men’s cups. This seemed more agreeable to them. The one with the necklace passed his cup to the younger one, whose eyes widened in surprise and delight as he drank.
She then ladled out some beans on a plate for them to share. Each shoveled several spoonfuls into their mouths with apparent relish. She refilled the plate with seconds while silently sending up another prayer that Mulder was alive and unharmed.
Mulder lay hidden in the waterlogged grass, watching the Sioux party approach the camp. After the storm broke and he’d discovered the horses were gone, he’d roamed the nearby hills for nearly an hour before picking up their hoofprints in the wet earth. These he’d followed north for a while, when he encountered more hoofprints and trampled grass. He’d caught sight of the Sioux just as they descended a hill, the four captured horses in tow, headed in the direction of the cottonwood stand and Scully. They must have noticed the smoke from her cook fire and decided to investigate.
Now, as he watched them approach her, a cascade of fear swept over him. Word of Ash Hollow had certainly reached the nearby Sioux bands by now; this group could be out to avenge their dead. Or, he thought, taking in how lightly they traveled - even for Indians - they could simply be a scouting party in search of bison.
Regardless, their presence put both him and Scully in a perilous position. They were outnumbered, and if he tried to shoot, they’d take her immediately, and have an arrow in him within seconds. He cursed himself for leaving her alone.
He watched as she walked toward them, listened as she invited them to supper. Thatta girl, he thought with a slight smile, admiring her prowess and calm demeanor. He observed them dismount and accept the coffee and beans.
There was a tall one dressed in buckskin. One of them - presumably their leader from the way he directed the other two - wore a necklace of bear claws, his hair tied in long twin plaits. He noticed the third one favoring his left arm; he looked young, no older than sixteen. Mulder guessed he’d tried to ride Ghost when they’d captured him and had been thrown; Ghost was notorious for letting no one other than Mulder ride him.
Scully turned her attention on the youngster and his injured arm. He watched as she slowly, carefully put her hands on his shoulder, prodding the area for painful points. The other two watched her intently, scrutinizing her every movement. He had no doubt that they would kill her if they suspected she meant any harm to the boy.
Only one thing to do, he thought as he pushed himself up from the ground. Try to get our horses back without anyone getting killed.
“Hau.” He spoke the Sioux greeting loudly to announce his presence, then slowly entered the camp, holding his rifle with both hands above his head. They all stood quickly at his approach.
One of them - Bear Claws - walked toward him and raised his hand in a tense greeting. “Hau.”
He saw Scully exhale in relief as he drew closer. “Are you all right?” he asked her, keeping his voice low and calm. He kept his eyes trained on the Sioux.
“I’m fine,” she replied, her voice taut with nervous tension.
He glanced at the young Indian beside her. “Is he injured?”
“Yes, but I’m not sure how badly.” She paused. “I thought something had happened to you.” Her tone managed to convey a complex mix of relief, anger, and fear, and for the second time, he cursed himself for going off without her.
“The only thing injured is my pride,” he said wryly, in an effort to diffuse the precariousness of their situation. “I lost our horses, and now it looks like I’ll have to beg for them.”
Slowly, he set his rifle on the ground and faced Bear Claws. He pointed to the horses and fumblingly began signing. Horses belong me. Storm come. Horses run.
He’d picked up Indian sign talk from the Tonkawa scouts down in Texas while on campaign against the Comanche. With a few regional variances, it was a widespread form of communication among Indians and traders across the continent.
Bear Claws appeared unmoved by Mulder’s claim on the horses; the Indian shrugged, then responded with his own hands. Horses us find. Horses now belong us.
Bear Claws glanced over to Scully , who, sensing their attention, looked up from her ministrations. Her eyes met Mulder’s in puzzlement. Mulder shook his head slightly, indicating that she should continue attending to the young Indian.
Woman strong. Not afraid. Work hard. Bear Claws then made the signs for ‘female’ and ‘marry.” Good wife make.
He gestured to Mulder’s erstwhile horses, then crossed his hands in front of his chest, with both index fingers pointing upwards. Mulder’s stomach dropped at the gesture. Trade.
He chanced a quick look at Scully. She was now inspecting the young man’s shoulder as she rotated his arm, but she was clearly keeping an eye on the negotiations.
Mulder moved his right hand to signal, as emphatically as he could, his refusal. No trade. Woman with me stay.
Bear Claws replied,Woman is wife yours?
He hesitated. He was on dangerous ground now, and had to tread very carefully. To say that Scully wasn’t married would invite the possibility of them trying to take her by force. The stealing of women was a practice common to some tribes, he knew, but usually only undertaken against enemies. Their interactions up until this moment, while not expressly friendly, were certainly neutral, and he hoped to keep it that way.
He signed, Woman is wife mine.
The man nodded slightly, apparently satisfied by this explanation, and Mulder breathed an inward sigh of relief. But there was still the matter of getting the horses - or at least some of them - back. Their survival depended on it.
Mulder indicated his rifle, then pointed to Ghost. Trade.
The Indian shook his head and waved a hand dismissively. Woman want only.
A man’s voice suddenly cried out as if in pain and both of them whirled at the sound. It was the young injured Sioux. He lay on the ground near the fire; Scully kneeled beside him, her hands on his shoulder.
Bear Claws drew his knife and made to rush at her. Mulder lunged and tackled him. Both fell to the ground, wrestling. Bear Claws was strong, and Mulder, exhausted from tracking the horses, struggled to to keep the Indian’s knife from finding his throat.
Scully’s panicked voice rang out through the clearing. “Mulder!”
Then the third Indian, who until now had contented himself by sitting on a log and sipping coffee, spoke a single word, which caused Bear Claws to ease up on Mulder. They both looked at the other Indian, who then jerked his chin in the direction of Scully and the young one.
The young Indian was sitting upright. He gingerly rotated his left arm and shoulder, his face registering incredulity at the sudden disappearance of his pain. He smiled broadly at the other two, and spoke rapidly in their language. From Mulder’s limited knowledge of Sioux, he made out the words “Woman” and “heal.”
At this, the older Indian picked himself up from the ground, then bent down and extended an open hand to Mulder. He took it and let the man help him to his feet.
Bear Claws signed, Wife good medicine make. Heal son.
Bear Claws spoke a few words to the third Indian. The man went over to Ghost and Scully’s sorrel and led them over to Bear Claws. He handed the reins of both horses to Mulder, then signed, Good trade.
Mulder stared incredulously at Scully and the miracle she had just wrought, then looked back at the Indian and repeated his gesture. Good trade.
The sun was sinking in a flaming sky as they watched the Sioux and their two captured horses fade into the horizon. Mulder breathed a sigh of relief at their disappearance, but couldn’t shake the anxious, uneasy feeling that lingered from the tense encounter. It had been a close call. More vexing still was the Indians’ interest in Scully, and how he’d handled the matter. He’d done what he’d had to to protect her, but he still felt sullied, like he’d violated a sacred trust between them. The fact that she was unaware of his transgression only added to his shame.
“What did you do for the boy?” He asked.
“He had a dislocated shoulder. I was able to coax him to lie down and allow me to pop it back into place,” she replied. “His cry must have startled the other one, made him think I had hurt him.”
She glanced worriedly at him and put a hand on his arm. “Are you all right, Mulder?” the concern in her voice pained him.
He gave her a small smile, unable to bring himself to tell her just how close they had come to ruin - and how she’d become an object with which to barter. “I’m just glad it’s over, is all,” he said.
“You and that older Indian had a very lively ‘conversation,’” she observed. “I saw him making an interesting gesture when you first started negotiating.” His heart sank as he watched her make a motion as if combing her hair with her fingers, then brought her hands front of her, crossed them, and pointed upwards. “What does it mean?”
He swallowed uncomfortably and looked at the ground, unable to meet her gaze.
He reluctantly repeated the gestures back to her. “That means ‘wife.’ And this,” he made the final motion, “means ‘trade.’’”
She was too shocked to say anything. Her mouth opened wordlessly as the significance of the exchange sank in.
“I refused,” he said. He hesitated, then added quietly, “I told him you were mine.”
Her eyes flashed at this. “No man owns me.” Beneath the coldness of her words was an anguish that pained him even more.
He stepped towards her, but she shifted away. “I’d like to be alone,” she said before he could respond. Reluctantly, he moved away, leaving her alone in the falling dusk.
Scully rose restless before dawn and made her way to a small outcrop that looked eastward. The morning star was still visible in the pale gray sky, a lone bright beacon just above the horizon, but the lilting tremolo of a nearby meadowlark suggested that daybreak was not far off.
Her initial anger had cooled overnight, but the pain from yesterday lingered. She knew why Mulder had told the Indians that what he had, knew that speaking truthfully would have opened the possibility for another, more terrible fate for her, and for that, she knew she should feel grateful. Still, she loathed the knowledge that her only value lay in whether a man could claim her, and she hated Mulder for playing the game, regardless of the necessity. There’s another reason, if you’re honest with yourself, she thought. You’ve become attached to him. And soon he will leave, to seek his fortune somewhere out West and leave his ghosts - and you - behind. What will you do, then?
The crunch of footsteps interrupted her thoughts. Mulder came to stand beside her. He didn’t speak, and she didn’t move away. Together, they silently watched the sun spill its golden light upon the land.
“We should reach Laramie day after tomorrow,” he said after a while.
“I suppose that’s welcome news for you,” she replied, turning to look at him. “You’ll be free to do as and go where you please, without a woman to burden you.”
He turned to face her with a startled expression. “Is that how you imagine I see you? As a burden?” he asked incredulously. He took her hand and held it tightly. “If it wasn’t for you, we’d never have gotten the horses back. You saved us. From the Indians, from the soldiers, with your knowledge and skill and composure.” The passion in his words took her aback.
He took a shallow, ragged breath, then continued. “You saved me.” His voice trembled as he spoke. “I owe you everything. You owe me nothing.”
She stood in astonishment at his admission while struggling to reconcile her own maelstrom of emotions. Despite all she’d lost and the ever-present sadness that had accompanied her across the miles, something else - something strange, new, and vibrant - had taken hold of her out here in this land of endless sky. This man had changed her, she realized. He’d imbued her life with a certain quality, a feeling of fullness whose nature she had until this moment struggled - and failed - to discern. Now, as they stared silently, intently at each other, she finally understood.
He stepped closer so that they were now only inches apart, still holding her hand. He spoke quietly, his voice almost a whisper. “The truth is, I can’t see myself going on without you.”
Tears stung her eyes, blurring her vision. She leaned into him and felt his arms encircle her. Reaching up, she removed his battered cavalry hat, and kissed his forehead tenderly, as if in benediction.
She brought her lips close to his ear. “Then we’ll go together.”
Plains Sign Language is a trade language which was widely used among tribes in western North America in the 1800s. Records of its use date back as far as European contact in the 1500s.
The trail leading to Laramie was a graveyard of discarded possessions: books, furniture, stoves, and all other manner of goods lay strewn about landscape.
“What is all of this?” Scully asked, taking in the strange sight.
“Folks finally coming to their senses,” he said as he maneuvered Ghost around a massive upright piano that stood, inexplicably, in the middle of the trail. “The mountains start just west of here, and low-country oxen don’t pull well at altitude. Need to lighten the load however you can.”
About a mile from the Fort stood several tipis; Cheyenne, he thought, judging from their long, narrow smoke flaps. Several children ran barefoot among the lodges, laughing as they chased each other through the camp. He closed his eyes at the sound, trying to keep the nightmare of Ash Hollow at bay.
“Are you all right, Mulder?” Scully’s voice said quietly beside him.
He swallowed and opened his eyes. He nodded, then spurred Ghost to move quickly past the camp.
Beyond the lodges, closer to the fort, was small cluster of wagons. A mixed herd of horses, oxen, and cattle milled nearby, grazing on the sparse prairie grass. A tall, broad man in shirtsleeves stood bent over a cart, apparently struggling with something heavy.
“I’ll be right back,” he said to Scully, then steered Ghost towards the man.
Two wheels lay on the ground beside the cart. The man grunted as he tried to lift a giant axle into place. Sweat fogged his wired spectacles.
“Can I give you a hand with that?” Mulder asked as he quickly dismounted.
The man didn’t look up. “Both hands, if you can spare ‘em,” he said, grimacing as he strained to hold the axle in place.
Mulder immediately crouched down opposite the man to support the heavy weight. Together, they lifted the axle into place.
The man took off his hat and wiped sweat from his bald pate with a red bandana. “Much obliged,” he said and extended a hand. “Walter Skinner.”
Mulder grasped and shook it. “Fox Mulder.”
He glanced at Mulder’s insignia-less hat and government-issued black boots. “You a cavalryman?” he asked.
Mulder nodded. “Was. Most recently of Company K, Second Dragoons.”
“Out of Kearny,” Skinner confirmed. “I was with Twiggs’ Division. We were with you boys at Veracruz in ‘46.” He paused and squinted at Mulder, as if taking in his features. “Might be before your time, though.”
Mulder grinned. “A bit. I was still a young buck at West Point back then.” He inclined his head towards the wagon. “That yours?”
Skinner nodded. “I’m captain of a ten-wagon party. Stopped here for a few days to rest and resupply before pressing on.” He paused thoughtfully. “I didn’t see a train come in today. You ride from Kearny?”
Mulder nodded. He held off on mentioning Scully. “Where you headed?” he asked instead.
“Some of us to Oregon, some to California. Me and a few others are driving a herd out to the Willamette Valley. Could use another man, if you’re heading west.”
Mulder hesitated. He saw movement out of the corner of his eye: Scully was approaching them on her sorrel. She dismounted and came to stand beside him. “Mr. Skinner, this is -”
“His wife,” she finished, smiling brightly at Skinner. Mulder couldn’t help his mouth from dropping open in surprise. She flashed him a sharp look.
“Uh, yes, my wife, Dana,” he continued, reluctantly turning back to Skinner.
Skinner touched his hat courteously to her. “Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”
Scully nodded her head graciously in acknowledgment.
“You two came all the way from Kearny on horse?” he asked, looking at Scully and their mounts, astonishment evident in his voice.
“It’s a long story,” Mulder said. “And tragic,” he added, glancing at Scully. Despite being separated by three hundred miles from where the soldiers attacked her and her family, he was reluctant to share the details of the masquerading soldiers with a relative stranger.
Skinner didn’t press him for an explanation, but merely nodded. “Well, the offer still stands. We have more cattle than we can reasonably manage with three men, so you would be an asset. And of course, we’re always happy for a women’s help and company,” he said, looking at Scully. “And if you folks need a wagon, you’re welcome to that one.” He pointed over to where to a weather-beaten, coverless cart stood forlornly in the morning light. “Belonged to a family of five that started out from Independence with us. Cholera took them a few months back. They felt fine enough one morning, but come nightfall, the entire family was dead.” He shook his head sadly. “Been using it as a water cart since. It needs some maintenance, but we’re here for a day or two yet, so you should be able to get ‘er fixed up.”
“Thank you for your generous offer, Mr. Skinner. We’d be honored to join your party,” Scully said. “That cart will suit us just fine.”
“Why don’t you join us this evening?” Skinner said. “Folks are planning a bit of a celebration.”
“Celebration?” Mulder asked.
“For Independence Day, of course,” said Skinner, surprised. “You two must have had quite the journey, to be forgetting the days.”
“Yes, it has been quite a journey, Mr. Skinner,” Scully said with a small smile. “And we would be delighted to attend. Thank you for the invitation.”
He felt her hand pulling him away. “My ‘wife’?” asked incredulously, once they were out of earshot of Skinner. “I’m flattered, but then I recall that four days ago, you gave me holy hell for saying the same thing.”
Her eyes flashed fiercely. “How do you think it looks otherwise, Mulder? An unmarried man and woman traveling together? No decent wagon captain would take us on if he suspected it.”
She was right. They were back among society now - such as it was. They might be surrounded by wilderness, but the rules of civility and decorum still held sway in the hearts and minds of most emigrants who journeyed on the Trail. A unwedded couple would cause scandal.
He wanted to press her, to ask if she wasn’t motivated by feelings other than necessity. He wanted to know if the words he’d spoken to her three days prior had changed how she felt about him, had influenced this unexpected willingness to tell a complete stranger that they were together. Her passionate response had given him hope at the time. But nothing more had been said or acted upon on the way to Laramie, leaving him to wonder where things stood between them.
“So am I now to call you ‘Mrs. Mulder’?” he asked, opting instead for sarcasm.
She gave him a withering look. “Dana will do,” she said evenly, then abruptly changed the subject. “I believe we both have tasks to attend to.”
“I suppose we do,” he said, returning her terseness. “I’ll see you back here this evening.”
She rode off silently towards the Fort while he went to take a closer look at the wagon.
Scully balked at the exorbitant prices she encountered at the Fort’s trading post: a dollar for a pint of flour, two for sugar. She grudgingly parted with several gold and silver coins from her small reserve to buy the barest of essentials and made arrangements with the clerk to pick them up once the wagon was repaired. At least they’d be traveling with a herd, which would provide some good beef.
She paused on her way out, her eyes noticing the bolts of bright cloth that sat stacked atop one another on a long shelf to her right. She brushed her fingers against one of them - a soft lavender muslin - and emitted a sigh. She had never been one to chase after the latest fashions, but she did put great stock in being presentable. And at the moment, she was anything but. Her dress was in such a state as to make it nearly unwearable; at the very least, it would need a good wash and some careful mending. She would need something suitable to replace it, but at three dollars a yard, this fabric was out the question. She’d have to find something else; perhaps one of the women in the wagon train had an old dress they could spare. Reluctantly, she withdrew her hand and exited the shop.
She went to where her horse stood hitched outside. There still was the manner of the bonnet for the wagon. The post sold canvas sheets at nearly three times the price of what could be had in Missouri, and she was disinclined to spend any more money. She paused, debating whether they could get by without a cover for the wagon. Then she recalled the vast quantities of abandoned goods that lined the trail leading to the fort. She swung up into the saddle and headed east.
It didn’t take her long to find what she was looking for. The canvas was dirty and ripped in several places, but it was still well-treated with linseed oil; she was confident she could make it serviceable with some determined stitching. Next to the canvas sheet lay a large wooden chest. She noticed a sleeve of pale blue linen peeking out from beneath the lid, and stooped to pull it out. It was a dress - a little large for her, but it was clean, and of good quality. She allowed herself a small smile at this welcome find and tucked it under her arm as she continued to rummage in the chest. She was startled to see her reflection staring up at her from a broken hand mirror.
It was difficult to reconcile what she saw in the mirror with the vision of herself in her mind’s eye. Her hair was lighter - almost blond - from the sun, and her face had more freckles than when she’d left Independence. Her cheeks were smudged with dirt. She looked older now, too; more care-worn lines etched a previously youthful face.
Her mind went to Mulder, and how he’d looked her at the morning after the encounter with the Indians. She self-consciously brought a hand to her face to tuck a stray strand of hair behind her ear. She knew she was attractive; she had had several would-be suitors profusely proclaim her beauty when she was younger. But she had never wished to be desired for her looks, and had refrained from indulging in the frivolous pastimes of most women her age, choosing instead focusing on her passion and interest in medicine. But Mulder had shaken her loose from her moorings. What had he seen when he’d looked at her?
She was surprised at how easy it had been to tell Skinner that she was Mulder’s wife. Nearly effortless, in fact. Something had indeed changed that morning, but whatever new thing had arisen, it was uncharted territory for both of them. What does he want? she thought. What do I want?
The sun suddenly appeared beneath the brim of her hat, briefly blinding her, and she realized how late the day had grown. She quickly secured the canvas and dress to her saddle, then set off in the direction of the Fort.
The wagon was in better shape than Mulder had initially thought. The two left wheels needed to be replaced, and he’d had to replace a few rotting boards on the bed, but the undercarriage was sound, as were the tongue and top frame. Skinner had generously lent him his tools, and sent over his two hired men to lend a hand in the repairs.
John Byers and Richard Langly made for an odd couple. Langly gave Mulder the impression of a scarecrow come to life: skinny and tall, with blonde hair that hung limp about his shoulders and clothes that were several inches too short for his lanky frame. Remarkably overdressed in a double-breasted waistcoat, Byers nevertheless demonstrated an impressive skill and willingness to get his hands dirty.
It was late afternoon by the time they finished installing the new wheels. Mulder removed his hat wiped his sweat-covered brow with a handkerchief. “That’ll do it, fellas,” he said to Byers and Langly. “Much obliged.” Langly breathed a sigh of relief and promptly threw himself down in the shade of the wagon box.
Byers nodded politely at Mulder and offered him a cup of water from a nearby bucket, which Mulder gratefully accepted. “Almost time for the celebration,” Byers said, glancing at his pocket watch. “Has your wife returned?”
My wife, he mused, mentally turning the phrase over as if scrutinizing an unfamiliar object. He’d managed to put Scully’s unexpected declaration - and his conflicted feelings on the subject - out of his mind as he’d worked on the wagon. But Byers’ words served as an unintentional reminder that there was still much that needed to be addressed between him and her.
“No, but she should be presently,” Mulder replied, trying to suppress the beginnings of worry as he scanned the horizon for her familiar silhouette.
As if on cue, a rider appeared in the far distance. Not Scully, he realized with disappointment as the figure drew closer: it was a man - a small man - on a gray horse. As he drew closer, the man suddenly spurred his mount to a gallop and waved his hat enthusiastically.
“Mulder!” The faint yet familiar voice of Melvin Frohike reached his ears. He stood, dumbstruck, as Frohike cantered up and dismounted.
“What are you doing here, Melvin?” he said, still doubting the vision of the small man who now stood before him.
“Glad to see you too, Mulder,” Frohike said, unstrapping his saddle bags from his horse. He turned to Byers, who stood next to Mulder, still clutching his pocket watch. “What’s your name?”
“Uh, John Byers.” Byers spoke his name as if unsure it belonged to him.
“Byers, eh? Put that thing away and give me a hand with these, will you?” Frohike gave his bags to Byers, who accepted them with a look of bewilderment. “Go ahead and set my tent up over there,” he gestured over to where Byers and Langly had pitched their own tents.
Frohike then turned to Langly, taking in his gangly appearance. “And what’s your name, stringbean?”
Langly threw up his hand in an unexpected salute of acknowledgment of Frohike’s sudden authority. “Richard Langly, sir,” he said nervously. “Originally from Delaware.”
Frohike handed him the reins of his horse. “Do me a favor, son, and make sure Sally here is brushed down and watered, then turned out with the rest of the horses. She’s had a hard journey. Off you go, lads.” The two men exchanged bemused glances as they walked off.
Frohike watched them go. “Good. Now we can talk,” he said, lowering his voice. “They found the bodies of Krycek and the others.”
Mulder fixed him with a sharp look.
“The official report was that they were killed trying to protect a wagon party from hostile Indians,” Frohike continued.
Mulder’s jaw clenched. “That’s a lie,” he said darkly.
“I know. I got a look at the bodies when they were brought into the Fort. I could see the war paint smeared on Krycek’s face. Curiously, there weren’t any bodies belonging to the wagon party that were brought back.”
“They’re looking for an excuse to punish the Sioux,” Mulder said, trying to quell the anger he felt rising within him. The thought of the blatant injustice done to Scully and her father and brother’s memory further pressed him
“There’s more, Mulder,” Frohike said, his face turning grim. “An officer stopped by the store a few days later and asked if I knew where you’d gone. Said you were a person of interest, given your demonstrated sympathies with the Sioux. I’d already put two and two together about what had happened, and figured that if you were involved, it would have been to protect those poor folks - not kill ‘em. I told him you’d had your fill of fighting, and that you were headed down Texas way. Hard to tell if that satisfied him, so I left at first light the following morning to warn you, in case Harney sends men this way looking for you.”
They don’t know about Scully, he realized. They don’t know she’s alive. Then came another sober thought: Should it come to a formal accusation of murder, she may be the only thing that stands between me and the gallows. But time enough later to dwell on that.
“You left the store?” Mulder asked incredulously.
“There are things in this life more important than money and feather beds. Friendship is one of them.” Frohike’s face was serious, but his eyes glistened in the late afternoon sun.
Mulder embraced him, touched by his loyalty. “Thanks, Melvin. I’ll never forget this. You’re a true friend.”
Frohike stepped back, wiping his eyes. “Don’t mention it,” he said, then blew his nose loudly with a grimy handkerchief.
“I’m amazed at how quickly you made it here from Kearny.”
“Don’t let this humble exterior fool you, Mulder. I was a mail courier in my younger days back in Missouri. I could make the route between Independence and St. Louis in less than four days. If there’s one thing I do better than separating soldiers from from their money, it’s riding.”
Mulder smiled. “I’m glad you caught me. We’re planning to depart tomorrow.”
“You mean with that motley outfit?” Frohike glanced over to where Byers and Langly stood over Frohike’s half-assembled tent, their voices raised in frustration and argument with each other. “Looks like you could do with someone to instill some good order and discipline.”
“I’m sure Skinner would appreciate your sage counsel,” Mulder replied, trying - and failing - to keep a teasing tone from his voice.
“Counsel be damned. I’ll whip those boys into shape myself.”
“You want to come with us?” Mulder said, surprised.
“I’ve had enough of the soft life, Mulder. This an opportunity to start fresh, to see this vast country. With any luck, I’ll set up a new shop somewhere along the Pacific Ocean.”
Mulder laughed and clapped his friend on the back. “Get yourself cleaned up. There’s someone I want you to meet.”
The sun had nearly set by the time Scully arrived back at camp. She steered her horse towards Mulder’s tent - their tent, she reminded herself, feeling an anxious tightening in her chest. The memory of their tense exchange earlier had lingered throughout the day. What had she gotten herself into?
Mulder emerged as she drew near. She permitted him to take the reins. “It’s nearly sundown,” he said as she dismounted. His words carried an accusatory edge.
“Yes, my eyes can see as well as yours,” she shot back, then immediately wished she hadn’t. She let out a weary sigh.
“I’m sorry,” she said, using a sleeve to dab the sweat from her face. “I had to ride out a ways to find a serviceable length of canvas for the wagon. I suppose the heat of the day has gotten to me.”
Mulder’s face softened. “I suppose we’ve both said things today which we regret,” he said quietly. “I’m more relieved than anything, to see you.” His hand gently, hesitatingly brushed hers as he said this. She took his hand in hers and squeezed it to indicate that all was forgiven between them.
She took in his clean, well-groomed appearance: he had trimmed his beard and had exchanged his dirty clothes for a clean muslin shirt and black wool trousers. He’d even polished his boots to a dull shine. “You look handsome,” she said, letting go of his hand to straighten one of his suspender straps.
Mulder’s lips twisted into a wry smile. “Don’t look too closely, or you’ll be disappointed,” he said. He paused, then said more seriously, “The next few days will be hard going, and neither of us has had much in the way of rest. If you’d rather not go to the celebration, I understand.”
He was right: she was tired - wearily so. But the prospect of a break in the monotony of trail life was too great an opportunity to pass up.
“Nonsense,” she said, briskly stamping her boots to remove the layers of dust that coated them. “I could do with a bit of music and merriment. I’ll join you presently.”
She emerged a half hour later washed, refreshed, and wearing the dress she had found in the abandoned chest. Her hair she had braided and gathered into a bun at the back of her head. The distant lilt of a fiddle told her that the party had started.
Several yards away stood Mulder. He was speaking quietly to a balding, diminutive gentleman. As she drew near, she realized with a start that it was the shopkeeper from Kearney - Frohike, she recalled. Mulder’s face was grave as he listened to Frohike. Both heads turned at her approach.
“Miss Scully, is it?” Frohike said, his somber face now full with a wide beaming smile. “How wonderful it is to see you alive and well, my dear.” He took her hand in his and kissed it. “Or should I say, ‘Doctor?’ Mulder has regaled me of your skill as a physician.”
“Exaggerations, no doubt,” she responded, smiling at Frohike’s genteel manners while raising an eyebrow in Mulder’s direction. She wondered what else Mulder had told him of her - and their relationship.
Mulder coughed uncomfortably. “It may be best that you refer to her as ‘Mrs. Mulder,’ seeing as how the rest the party believes us to be married,” he said quietly.
Frohike stared at him, his eyes wide, then to her, then back to Mulder. She could feel her face turning red with embarrassment. Mulder’s face also appeared flushed.
“Far be it for me to mind another man’s business,” Frohike said quickly, in an apparent desire to lessen the awkwardness of the moment. “I wish you both health and happiness in your new life together.” He suddenly smiled and clapped his hands together. “Now, I believe we have a party to get to.”
I realize it's been a long time (like, a whole freakin' year) since I added a chapter, and I'll bet many of you had written this story off as an abandoned WIP. Some difficult stuff happened in my life that took me away from writing, but I'm back. I can't promise when Chapter 11 will be up, but rest assured that I am working on it. Thanks for your patience, and I hope you enjoy!
Folks belonging to several wagon trains had gathered in a large flat area between two hills. Off to the left, silhouetted against the sinking sun, stood the low, hulking form of Fort Laramie.
Scully watched the small form of Frohike disappear among the throng of revelers. “I take it Mr. Frohike’s appearance was as much a surprise to you as it was to me,” she said once he was gone from view.
“Yes, very much,” Mulder said musingly as they drew near the gathering. She glanced over to see his brow furrowed in what appeared to be worry.
“Did he bring troubling news?” she asked, trying - and failing - to keep the concern from her voice.
“I’ll tell you later, when we’re alone,” he said, avoiding a direct answer. She noticed his gaze drifted to a small group of uniformed men as he spoke. They stood gathered around a fire, laughing and clapping each other on the shoulders. Soldiers from the fort, come to partake in the festivities, she supposed, and wondered silently what Frohike had told Mulder to make him eye them warily.
He noticed her watching him. “It’s nothing worth spoiling the evening over,” he said reassuringly, his tone lighter than before. “Let’s enjoy ourselves tonight.” He held out his arm in invitation, which she gladly took.
A large, matronly woman in a purple linen dress beckoned them over to a makeshift table of barrels and wood planks. The table sagged with the weight of over a dozen Dutch ovens and platters; tendrils of steam curled upward from their mouth-watering contents. Her stomach growled involuntarily at the sight and she remembered that she hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, and that had been just a few bites of hardtack softened in coffee.
“Welcome, newcomers!” she beamed. “I hear you only just arrived this morning. I’m Mrs. Connelly.” Her Irish brogue lent a sing-song quality to her voice. “You must be famished. Here - nourish yourselves.” She handed each of them a heaping plate of biscuits, boiled potatoes, and beef stew.
She and Mulder thanked Mrs. Connelly for her hospitality and settled themselves on the grass to eat. Several couples danced while a fiddler scratched out a lively rendition of ‘Jenny Lind.’ The cool of the evening was enhanced by a light westerly breeze, which rustled the skirts of the women who sat chatting idly as their children laughed and chased each other through the tall grass. Scully he smiled at the sight.
She glanced over at Mulder, only to find him staring at her. “Is something the matter?” she asked, her hands immediately going to her hair to make sure nothing was out of place.
He shook his head and emitted a low chuckle. “No, you couldn’t be more beautiful this evening. It’s just… I don’t think I’ve seen you smile like that in weeks.” He paused, then said, “It makes my heart glad to see you happy.”
His gaze and words made her blush. She was spared the necessity of a response by the approach of Walter Skinner. “Good evening, Captain, Mrs. Mulder,” he said, nodding to Mulder then touching his hat as he addressed her. “Glad you could join us. Mrs. Mulder, may I have the pleasure of a dance?”
“Of course, Mr. Skinner,” She got to her feet and took his outstretched hand. He led her to where the dancers had trampled the grass into a serviceable dance floor.
The fiddler had changed to a stately schottische, which seemed to match perfectly with Skinner’s gentlemanly demeanor. He was a fine dancer and quite precise with his movements. She stumbled through the first few phrases of the tune, but Skinner was patient and she eventually remembered the steps well enough to keep time with him.
At one point, she glanced up to see where Mulder had gone. She saw him off to the side, standing beside Melvin Frohike and sipping coffee. Their eyes met and he smiled and raised his cup in mock salute.
She barely had time to courtesy to Skinner as the music ended before she was confronted by not one - but two - other men wanting to dance: John Byers and Richard Langly stood side-by-side, jostling as they each strained to speak over the other.
“Mrs. Mulder, would you do me the honor of a dance?”
“Excuse me, Mr. Langly, but I believe I was here first-”
“You are mistaken, Mr. Byers. I beat you here by a country mile.”
A pair of hands suddenly appeared between Byers and Langly, which pushed them aside to reveal Frohike. “Ah, thank you, lads, for keeping my place in line,” he said, briskly stepping in front of them and making a low, dramatic bow to her.
“Would you oblige this old man with a dance?” .
She laughed at the small man’s deft handling of the two younger men. “It would be my pleasure, Mr. Frohike.” He led her back out to the dance floor.
“He loves you, you know.” Melvin said the words with a casualness one normally used when discussing the weather or the harvest.
“I beg your pardon,” she said breathlessly, looking down at him.
Frohike continued dancing as if he hadn’t heard her, then said, “I’ve known Mulder for years. He was never one to let the difficult business of soldiering affect his spirit - he knew his duty, and he made sure he carried out his orders with a full measure of courage and integrity. But what happened at Ash Hollow was an unconscionable horror. It nearly broke him. I don’t know what happened between here and Kearny, but I can say with utter conviction that Fox Mulder is a changed man. And I’m equally certain that it has everything to do with you.”
The dance finished without further conversation. Melvin tipped his hat and gave her a knowing wink before heading off in the direction of the food, leaving her feeling like she was still spinning on the dance floor.
The sensation of a finger tapping her shoulder interrupted her thoughts. She turned, expecting to find Byers and Langly again clamoring for a dance. But it was Mulder. Melvin’s words echoed loudly in her mind as she blushed for the second time that evening.
Thankfully, he didn’t seem to notice. “Got room on that dance card for one more?” He asked, holding out his hand.
The music resumed, this time with a fast, spirited reel which took them galloping among pairs of other dancers. Despite her weariness from the trail and the heat of the day, she felt a second wind as Mulder skillfully swept her across the dance floor. Like Skinner and Frohike, he was an excellent dancer, and they continued dancing as the music transitioned to a slower, more intimate waltz.
She was keenly aware of his proximity: one strong hand gripping hers, the other firmly placed low on her waist, his face hovering just inches above hers. A feeling of desire came over her, and for the first time, she permitted herself to indulge in the sensation - if only in her mind. To deny that Mulder brought her pleasure would be to tell herself a falsehood. More than pleasure, though, was the sense of familiarity - indeed, outright intimacy - she felt in his presence. Like the current of a swift-flowing river or a strong ocean tide, there was a quality to Mulder which seemed to pull her to him, a sensation which she found increasingly hard to ignore. The strange dreams she’d had on the trail - of them in another world, another life - lent a curious legitimacy to these feelings. If Mulder also harbored such feelings, as Melvin had said... No use in idle speculation, she reminded herself as the waltz ended.
“You’ve worn me out, Mr. Mulder,” she said with a laugh. “I think it’s time I retired for the evening.”
They walked in companionable silence back to the tent, the light of a nearly full moon guiding their steps. Mulder paused at the entrance flap and faced her. “Thank you for a lovely evening, Dana,” he said. “It’s been years since my heart felt so light.”
He reached up to brush away a stray strand of hair that had fallen across her face. His fingers grazed her cheek and to her surprise, she found herself leaning into his rough, calloused palm. Their eyes met and slowly, Mulder bent his head down. His lips brushed hers, hesitant at first - as if he expected her to pull away - then with a gentle, persistent pressure. She tasted the sweetness of his mouth, felt the bristles of his beard tickle her cheek.
She’d only been kissed like this once before. As a forty-four year old widower, Dr. Daniel Waterson was nearly twenty years her senior when he had courted her back in Baltimore. She had found him charming, if a little intimidating, and had seriously considered his proposal of marriage before Bill had sent word of the bounties of the Oregon Territory and her father had decided to start a new life out West. The pull of adventure and the possibilities inherent in such a distant, verdant land, was too great to ignore, and so she’d refused Daniel and instead followed her father.
And now here she was, kissing a man she’d known for barely a fortnight. And yet, in this moment, she felt the same certainty that had gripped her when she told him that she would make the journey West with him: that all of her choices had led her to this place, to this man. Perhaps, she realized with a stunning flash of insight, it was this invisible yet irresistible truth which had led her to declare that she was his wife. Her fate was intertwined with his.
The kiss only lasted the length of a few breaths before Mulder slowly pulled away. “I hope that wasn’t too bold of me,” he said quietly. The moonlight revealed a worried frown on his face.
She shook her head. “On the contrary, Mr. Mulder,” she said with a small smile. “It’s a fine start.” Then she kissed him again.