A Heart in the Hand
by Jeremy M. Gottwig
The story I'm about to tell isn't about Major Jim Bridger. Sure, that old mountain wizard
played his part, but not in a manner you might expect. This is a story about Portugee Phillips and
the woman who lost her heart. It's a story about the largest battle in Chief Red Cloud's war
against the whites. Maybe most of all, this is a story about not getting what you want for
In this story, gunfire echoed in the distance, but nobody could see the fight through the
hills. Every man, woman, and child stopped to listen.
Fort Phil Kearny had never been so quiet.
The colonel had put Lieutenant Grummond in charge of the 2nd Cavalry that day. It was a
proud moment for Missus Grummond, but fears of the outcome had sent her home to listen in
solitude. She tried not to think of the battle or the magical locket tied around her husband's neck.
Only after the air fell silent did she force herself to wonder about her husband's fate. He
would come home a hero, she wanted to imagine. His men would tell tales about how he took
down twenty Lakota warriors and saved the logging train. The colonel would have to admit he'd
been wrong about her husband's temperament and would make him the permanent commander
of the 2nd Cavalry. She hoped this with all her heart. Nothing would make for a better Christmas.
It never occurred to her to fear that he might die.
Across the fort, Portugee Phillips stopped splitting logs. He dropped his axe, tipped back
his battered hat, and studied the sky. Then he thought the better of being empty-handed so close
to the battle, and he picked his axe back up again.
Portugee moved to the stockade. Through a gap between the logs, he could see smoke
rising above the distant hills. The air smelled of gunpowder and blood. Portugee wished he could
feel through the earth like Bridger could feel the earth. He wished he could ask the eagles for
news or read tidings in the clouds. Portugee wanted to know if he should take his meagre
earnings and run before Chief Red Cloud brought the fight to Fort Kearny.
The first of the army scouts returned near twilight. Portugee and Missus Grummond
emerged from isolation and hurried toward fort headquarters. The scout may have appeared
unscathed, but he wore the full-faced grimace of a man plagued by the tale he came to tell. It was
an infectious plague. The scout barged in on the colonel without knocking. Being civilians,
neither Portugee nor Missus Grummond could enter, but the Lieutenant's wife muscled her way
through the crowd and pressed her ear to the window. This drew a few angry grunts from those
nearby but nobody gave her any trouble. Being an officer's wife had its advantages, and Missus
Grummond was more than happy to exploit those advantages.
Portugee kept his distance. If he needed to make a getaway, he wanted to do so under as
few eyes as possible. Provided folks kept quiet, he had keen enough ears to hear into the