Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

A Heart in the Hand
    by Jeremy M. Gottwig

A Heart in the Hand
Artwork by Dean Spencer

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 Christmas.

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 colonel's office.

But folks didn't keep quiet.

"What's going on?" some whispered. "Can you hear anything?" asked others. And, "Why won't they come out and tell us what's happened?"

Before long, Portugee gave up trying to listen and instead watched Missus Grummond. Even with the wide-eyed worry on her face, he still considered her the prettiest woman west of the Mississippi. That mysteries surrounded her made her all the more fascinating. The crowd kept Portugee from sniffing out her emotions, but when she closed her eyes and covered her mouth, Portugee figured she'd heard the worst. He looked over his shoulder toward the stables but spotted Bridger stomping shirtless toward the gathering with his grizzly bear close behind. Portugee decided to stay put. He wouldn't let Bridger think him a coward.

The wizard came alongside Portugee and put a hand on his shoulder. "Wife won the shirt right off my back," he marveled. "You believe that?"

Even after living and working alongside Bridger for more than a year, Portugee still couldn't help the tremble of hero worship in his gut. As a young man, he'd grown up hearing tall tales about the wizard. Some of those tales had drawn him to the new world once he came of age.

"I hope that you will win it back someday," Portugee replied.

This would have earned a chuckle from Bridger in happier times, but the pair of them turned their attentions to the events at hand. Portugee couldn't help noticing the smell of curiosity emanating from Bridger, but there was something more. Fear, Portugee supposed. They were common enough smells in those days, but Portugee had grown used to Bridger smelling like nothing but Bridger. He stashed his concerns for the time being and got back to watching Missus Grummond.

Only then did he notice she wasn't wearing her locket.

"Infantry's been wiped out, Colonel," the Lieutenant's wife had heard the scout whimper through the glass. Missus Grummond was desperate for some news about the 2nd Cavalry, but the colonel wouldn't stop pressing for details about the infantry.

When her patience finally expired, she steadied her face and stormed into headquarters. Colonel Carrington and his bushy eyebrows looked up at her, but the scout dropped his eyes to the floor.

"And what about the cavalry?" she demanded. "What's become of them?"

Missus Carrington emerged from the shadows and put her hands on the other woman's shoulders.

"Frances," Missus Carrington whispered. "Why don't we step outside and let the men finish their business."

Missus Grummond shrugged herself free. "Tell me about my husband," she insisted.

The colonel lifted a hand and turned to the scout. "What do we know about the 2nd?"

The scout shifted his gaze between the colonel, Missus Grummond, and the floor. He shook his head. "Wiped out, Colonel," he said. "Down to the last man."

Missus Grummond wouldn't believe it. She'd sacrificed much to ensure her husband's success. "Except Lieutenant Grummond, of course. What of him?"

The scout continued shaking his head. "Saw his body myself."

Missus Grummond held her breath a spell before asking, "You're certain of what you saw?"

"Yes ma'am."

A tender heart would cry for the Widow Grummond and the pain she felt in that moment, but she was the strongest of women. She clenched her skirts in tight fists, looked Colonel Carrington in the eyes, and said, "You'll be collecting his body?"

"Once the dust settles, yes," he replied.

"Of course."

The colonel glanced at his wife then, and Missus Carrington urged the other woman outside. Not until the fresh air touched the widow's skin did the shock of what she'd heard begin tearing her apart. She wrapped her arms around Missus Carrington and wept in front of everyone. Her sobs left her gasping for air.

The onlookers fell silent as Missus Carrington guided the weeping widow back to her home. Only after the ladies moved out of sight did the crowd erupt. Several folk even barged in on the colonel and started demanding answers.

Cry for the Widow Grummond if you have a heart. Cry for all the families who lost loved ones that day, white and Native alike. I still do, sometimes.

Everyone learned what happened soon enough, but details were a long time coming. Chief Red Cloud had set a trap for the unsuspecting troops. A couple of decoys was all it took. The whites got themselves slaughtered in spectacular fashion. Imagine if you will several dozen army officers and enlisted in their army blues. Imagine those men surrounded by hundreds of warriors in leathers and war paint, some on ponies but most on foot. Imagine the cries of those warriors as they sent arrows into that pool of men and came at them with spears. And now imagine you're one of those men. Imagine you've lost your horse. You've got an arrow in your leg and another in your gut. Imagine your gun just jammed, and there's a Lakota warrior bearing down on you. You've got fear on your face, and he knows you're helpless. He's got the wide-open smile of a man hungry for your blood. Now imagine that he's put an arrow in your chest. You fall against the earth and lay among the Wyoming grasses, and the world seems to slow as you forget about the battle and the braves and your impending death. All you can think to do is watch the short grasses shiver and the long grasses sway. Your wife and the children you've dreamed of having pass you by like whispers along sleep's edge.

You're still alive when that warrior shaves the hair from your head, skin and all. You scream your last scream, but by then you're nothing but an animal.

After the battle, he returns and takes the locket hanging from your neck. Then you can finally rest.

Imagine you were Missus Grummond's husband.

Not a single soldier survived that day. Some took their own lives rather than die like Lieutenant Grummond. I'd describe the bodies, but I wouldn't want to give the little ones nightmares. Let's just say those warriors didn't want whites experiencing the pleasures of the afterlife. I suppose they had good reason for feeling this way, but I'm not here to judge.

As a man rather fond of his body parts, Portugee Phillips started collecting his things once the colonel summoned Bridger away from the gathering. The teamsters' quarters were empty but for one old man, who was fast asleep. Portugee's heart pounded as he swiped a revolver from beneath another's bed and shoved it into his belt. The thought of leaving the Widow Grummond put a longing in his heart, but like always, he did his best to bury the feeling.

When he returned outside, he found the dark of night and the first snowflakes falling from the sky. He also found the wizard leaning against a post and picking at his fingernails with a knife. The bear sat nearby and lapped at the air like the snowflakes were made of honey. Portugee felt the burn of fear in his gut as the wizard marched toward him. "Good news, Portugee," declared Bridger. "I've volunteered you for a dangerous mission." He grabbed the gun from Portugee's britches and said, "Looks like you grabbed the wrong shooter." Bridger tossed the gun over his shoulder. It flew high into the sky and vanished into the clouds. Bridger wrapped his arm around Portugee's shoulder and urged him into the yard. "Now then, let's go tell the colonel you're happy to oblige."

Armed or not, Portugee wanted to pull away and head for the hills, but gnarled vines grew from Bridger's calloused fingers and wrapped themselves around Portugee's forearm. It was almost as if that old mountain wizard thought Portugee might run away!

"I am not an army man," Portugee reminded.

Bridger nodded his thanks for the reminder and grunted his understanding.

Portugee had plenty more he wanted to say, but all he added was, "This is not my war."

Bridger let out a slow shush. "These aren't times for idle chatter, Portugee," he said.

They moved quickly past the stables but slowed near the officers' quarters. Theirs seemed the only dry eyes in the fort until they encountered the Widow Grummond. They found her standing outside her door and staring into the sky. Quiet as a dove, she whispered, "Blizzard's coming."

"So it is," agreed Bridger. As they passed her by, he pulled Portugee closer and said, "Now that's a brave woman."

But the Widow Grummond didn't feel brave. She felt empty and numb, and staring into the sky was the only thing she could think to do.

Portugee found himself still thinking about her when Bridger nudged him into headquarters. Despite her being a cultured woman, Portugee had often suspected she had magic about her. It was the locket that had first tipped him off. Sometimes her heartbeat seemed to ring from inside that gold shell rather than from inside her chest. With the locket being gone, her heartbeat sounded all but dead.

But somehow, she kept on living.

The colonel climbed from his desk and shook Portugee's hand. "Mister Phillips, I'm glad to finally meet you." Portugee nudged his curiosities about the widow aside and nodded. Despite the colonel's outward calm, his heart pounded like a barrage of cannon fire. Bridger claimed a chair and lowered his chin and as if planning to take a snooze.

Another's scent caught Portugee's attention, and he noticed a Cheyenne warrior standing in the shadows. The man had hard, black eyes and a deep scar on the tip of his nose. Their eyes met, and the warrior sank deeper into darkness until nothing more than a ghost in the lamplight.

The colonel returned to his chair and started scribbling something on a piece of paper. "It seems you've been with us for over a year. It shames me that I never took the time to get to know you."

Portugee nodded but said nothing.

Colonel Carrington flashed a scowl. He put down his pen and grinned up at Portugee. "Major Bridger tells me you're from Portugal."

"Portugal, yes." Despite it being his new world name, Portugee bristled at the reminder. Back home, folks started fearing him once his powers began manifesting themselves. It made for an unhappy childhood. Portugee had learned to bury that part of himself.

"Major Bridger also tells me you are something of a mountain man in your own right, much like the major himself in his younger days."

Portugee nodded.

"And you know this land like the back of your hand, Major Bridger says."

Portugee again nodded.

"And a man of few words, it seems."

Portugee held his head a little higher. The truth is that he liked to keep quiet until he knew how folks would respond to his accent.

"Time's a wasting," Bridger grunted. "You either trust me about Portugee or you don't."

The colonel kept his eyes pinned on Portugee. "I have learned to take the major's advice to heart. It's his motivations I sometimes question."

Portugee nodded toward the man in the shadows and asked, "Who are you?"

"Someone I trust," replied Colonel Carrington. "That's all you need to know."

"He's a spy," Bridger divulged.

The Cheyenne warrior spit on the floor and glared at Bridger. Colonel Carrington lifted a hand. "Mister Phillips, today we lost a hundred brave soldiers, and it has come to my attention that Chief Red Cloud is planning an attack on this fort. We will not survive a sustained attack given our current numbers."

None of this surprised Portugee, but hearing the words spoken made his chest feel tight. Portugee thought of the Widow Grummond. That she might die for something as foolhardy as protecting a gold road through Sioux country had him feeling angry.

"Fact is we need reinforcements, and we need them now," continued the colonel. He folded the piece of paper on his desk and shoved it into an envelope. "I want you to carry this dispatch to General Cooke at Fort Laramie." He sealed the envelope and held it up. "And it needs to arrive no later than Christmas day."

Portugee left the letter hanging. "That is not possible," he said. Portugee knew the path to Fort Laramie well. It was over two hundred miles as the crow flies, and Christmas was four days away.

And as the widow had said, there was a blizzard brewing.

"For a normal man, no, but Bridger assures me you have a touch of his . . . gift. I had planned on sending the Major himself, but he tells me his age would slow him down."

Portugee's jaw tightened. He knew his chances were better than most men's, but he didn't buy for a second that he was better suited than Bridger. Portugee rehearsed his refusal in his mind, as was his manner, but the colonel continued before the words could touch his lips.

"I'll give you my fastest horse," the colonel promised. "And the best gun I own."

Only then did Portugee begin rethinking his refusal. The Colonel and Bridger wanted to send him away but were willing to give him what he needed to make the most of it.

"Just take the letter, Portugee," grumbled Bridger.

Portugee thought of the widow and those like her. After a few, silent seconds, he agreed with a nod and shoved the envelope into his pocket.

"I'm sending another rider out with you, a Corporal Bailey," the colonel added.

Portugee frowned. "I prefer to ride alone."

"Let me be clear," continued the colonel. "I don't expect Corporal Bailey to survive. There is no doubt in my mind that you will be hunted by those who mean to do us harm. Bailey's job is to protect you for as long as he's able. Once the way is clear, you are to leave him behind and ride like the wind. His death will be a sadness, but it will serve the greater good."

This didn't sit right with Portugee. "The greater good," he grumbled.

The colonel frowned and glanced at Bridger.

"Portugee will get the job done," Bridger swore. "Won't you, Portugee?"

It didn't sound like much of a question, but Portugee nodded anyway.

After a long sigh, Colonel Carrington opened a desk drawer and withdrew two revolvers, one ivory-handled and silver as the moon and the other wood-handled and gray. "Pick one," the colonel said. "And may God protect you on your journey."

Portugee picked the better gun.

He was on horseback and riding into the hills soon after. A frozen gust rode across his ears and put an ache into his jaw. He thought once more of the Widow Grummond and glanced over his shoulder at the fort only to find the wizard towering over the stockade like a giant, watching him. Portugee took a moment to marvel at the man even as he resented him for throwing in his lot with the army.

But Bridger had his reasons.

Portugee reined his horse over the hill. He and Corporal Bailey tried keeping to low ground after that, but the snows were growing heavier and starting to drift. Some might wonder if God had decided to bury the battlefield and bring things back to the way they'd been before the bloodshed. Maybe Colonel Carrington would look outside come morning and forget about the war. Let them keep their hunting grounds, he'd tell General Cooke. Maybe Chief Red Cloud would wake and see his fallen warriors sitting around the fire eating venison and telling stories. Maybe he'd weep tears of joy for the first time in years.

Maybe I should take this story back to the beginning and tell a happy yarn where everyone gets what they wanted most and angels sing carols across the land. Maybe the Widow Grummond should wake to find her bed filled with the warmth of her sleeping husband.

But this ain't that kind of story.

In this story, when the Widow Grummond's distant heartbeat woke her at midnight, she found her bed cold and empty. The frigid wind whistling through the walls had turned her skin to ice, but she had but one flesh to keep herself warm.

Her heartbeat felt further away than ever. For the first time since the widow had learned of her husband's fate, she started fearing her locket had ended up around the neck of another man.

It was worry about her locket that had her climbing out of bed and into her warmest clothes that night, but it was fear of solitude that had her leaving her quarters. The air felt about as cold outside as it had on the inside, but the wind pelted her skin with tiny flakes like embers from a fire. She tightened her winter bonnet and marched through the ankle-deep snow toward the gate. Well over a dozen men kept watch along the stockade but none paid her more than a glance.

The Widow Grummond looked at the frozen hills and tried to imagine the battlefield. Before long, the snow would have the bodies frozen and buried, she figured. The thought had her wiping a stray tear from her cheek, but she didn't weep. The widow considered passing through the gate but knew the guards wouldn't let her get far. She started back home, but worry sent her to another's door.

The widow knocked. She heard a grunt and a growl inside. Bridger's wife opened the door a smidgen and looked up at her. The Shoshone princess had a glare that could cut flesh like butter. The Widow Grummond felt another tear running down her cheek. She wiped it away only to find blood on her handkerchief. "Go back to your bed," Missus Bridger whispered.

The Widow Grummond held her head high and dabbed at the small cut. "May I have a word with the wizard?"

It was then that the bear pushed Bridger's wife aside and marched out into the snow. For a moment, the widow saw Bridger pulling up his baggy trousers. She averted her eyes.

"Why don't I come back later?" the widow suggested.

"Just hold on a minute," Bridger grumbled. To his wife, he asked, "Can I have my shirt back?"


Bridger shook his head as he pulled his suspenders over his bare shoulders and followed the bear. He was barefoot.

"My, but you look so cold," the Widow Grummond noted.

"This is my kind of weather," Bridger declared. He frowned at his wife. "It's more a question of modesty."

Missus Bridger disappeared for a moment and returned with a shirt. She tossed it at her husband. "You can wear this."

Bridger let the shirt fall into the snow. "That one don't smell like me." He looked at the Widow Grummond and asked, "You ready?"

"For what, Major Bridger?"

"To collect the good Lieutenant's body from the battlefield, of course. I figure that's why you've come."

With a tremble and a nod, the widow said, "The guards will never let me through the gate alone."

"Nor together, but I've got ways of hiding you." To his wife, Bridger asked, "You coming?"

Missus Bridger glared at her husband and shut the door.

The wizard pulled down his hat and said, "Fair enough. Makes things easier." Without asking permission, he grabbed the widow by the hips and tossed her onto the bear's back. She started tipping backwards but had the good sense to grip the bear's neck with both arms. Coarse, musky fur tickled her nose. "Hold on just like that, and keep quiet," Bridger whispered. The bear let out a slow growl, and Bridger added, "But not too tight."

The Widow Grummond relaxed her grip. "Thank you, Major Bridger," she whispered.

"I've got a few curiosities of my own and meant to visit the battlefield anyway. You'll be doing me a favor keeping me company."

"What sorts of curiosities?" the widow started asking, but Bridger shushed her quiet and started through the fort toward the gate. The bear's rolling gait had the widow thinking of a rocking boat, but the shoulder blades poking up at her made for an unpleasant ride. Bridger placed a hand on her head, and she felt herself sink deeper into the bear's body until fur covered her from head to toe. Before long, she couldn't tell her body from the bear's.

"My friend here needs to hunt," Bridger told the corporal guarding the gate.

The man straightened his back and trembled, "Colonel says nobody's allowed outside, sir."

Bridger seemed to think a moment. "Well, I suppose I could let him eat a horse, but that'd just be messy." He started through the gate and into the open air. The bear followed. "We'll be back in a bit."

"Lakota scouts spotted not more than an hour ago, Major!"

"Then we'll be extra careful."

The Widow Grummond heard another soldier arrive on the scene. "You let him go?"

"I mean, it's Bridger. Right?"

Those army boys called out a few more times, but Bridger just waved in reply. Only after they passed into the trees did he remove his hand from the Widow Grummond's head. The bear's fur disappeared from over her. She found herself back in her own body, chills and all. She tumbled into the snowy grass. The cold singed her flesh and froze the insides of her nose.

"You can walk now," Bridger informed before pressing deeper into the hills.

The Widow Grummond stood and dusted off her skirts. "Very well, Major Bridger," she huffed. It was the last thing either of them said for some time. Only once did Bridger pause to point out a faint silhouette running along a nearby hill, but if they had been spotted, it didn't amount to anything but more worry. They arrived at the battlefield an hour or so later.

When the Widow Grummond saw the dead poking through a blanket of white, she started feeling colder than ever. The sight looked like a vision from the worst sort of dream. The wind had pushed drifts against the bodies, and a fine powder of snow skirted across the surface like a broken mist. The widow watched as Bridger and the bear stomped out into the pool of corpses. They left large tracks in the snow, but the wind started filling those tracks soon after they'd set.

It didn't take long before the Widow Grummond realized she was just as frozen as the dead. Try as she might, she couldn't bring herself to follow Bridger into the battlefield. She feared what she might see as she got closer.

The bear left Bridger's tail and circled back to where the widow was standing. It lowered itself onto its haunches. Maybe because the Widow Grummond longed to touch something, she climbed onto that bear's back and hugged its neck. "Help me find my husband," she whispered. After a small growl, the bear thumped its way back into the battlefield. At first, the widow pinched her eyes shut, but she forced bravery into her heart and opened those eyes.

Now, I'm not going to give you the details of what she saw, because I wouldn't want folks thinking bad of Chief Red Cloud or his warriors. It was a time of war, and Red Cloud did everything he could to scare the whites away from those hunting grounds.

But I will say that the sight would haunt the Widow Grummond until the end of days. God bless the snow for keeping her from seeing everything.

When the bear stopped and lowered itself, bravery helped the widow find her feet on the ground. Bridger loomed nearby. He had dusted the snow from a nearby body. The widow recognized her husband at once.

This time it wasn't bravery that overcame her fears but the feeling of still being inside a dream. For a moment, she wondered if she'd ever woken from her bed that night. Before her lay the man she loved, but everything about him looked wrong.

A chill from the wind tugged the feeling away and pushed the fear of solitude back into her breast. The last little bit of hope that her locket might have kept him alive died right then and there. She fell over the cold body and held it as best she could. She stroked his cold, cold face and said her goodbyes.

But she didn't weep.

Meanwhile, Bridger continued dusting around the body. At first, he used his feet but after a while, he grunted down onto his hands and knees and started picking through the frozen grass. Little by little, the widow became aware of what he was doing. She allowed herself to kiss her husband one last time before finding her feet and dusting off her skirts.

"I will need help hauling his body back to Fort Kearny," she said once she'd collected herself, but Bridger didn't respond. He was looking for her locket, she suspected. "Explain your intentions, Major Bridger," she demanded.

Bridger kept to himself. He began rooting through the Lieutenant's pockets, and then, in a manner the widow considered crass and disrespectful, he ripped open the corpse's shirt.

"Major Bridger!" the Widow Grummond gasped.

After a grunt and a shake of the head, Bridger looked up at her. He wiped his brow with the back of his hand before trying and failing to find his feet. "Help me up, if you don't mind."

Despite her outrage, the widow rushed to the major's side and gave him a hand. She got that old wizard standing again, but her muscles were burning by the end. "Are you sure you aren't part bear yourself, Major?" the widow asked as she caught her breath.

"An old bear, maybe."

As the cold settled back over her skin, the widow remembered that finding the locket was a priority of her own. She closed her eyes and felt for her heartbeat but found it still so far away. "Locket's not here," she whispered. Then she knew for certain another had taken it. This angered her even as it put fear back into her gut.

What would happen to her if someone tried opening the locket, she couldn't say, but she doubted she'd survive.

"I won't lie," Bridger grumbled. "I'd hoped to inspect it. That's all."

"There isn't much to inspect, Major," the widow sighed. "It's gold and shaped like a dove." She had no intentions of saying more than that.

"But what's it got hidden inside? What's it made of?"

The widow shook her head. "That's between me and my husband."

The snow around Bridger's feet started to melt, and he grew a little taller. "Your husband's dead, Missus Grummond." He scowled and stepped toward her. "I know there's something about that locket. I've got my guesses, of course, but I would appreciate it as a courtesy if you'd answer my questions."

The Widow Grummond knew the wizard was trying to intimidate her, but she wouldn't be intimidated. "Help me with my husband's body," she insisted.

Bridger's scowl slipped. He let out a long, unhappy grumble, grabbed the Lieutenant's body, and hoisted it over his shoulder gentle as could be.

"I see you found your strength, Major," the widow marveled.

The wizard started marching away, but she caught up fast and kept to his heels. She avoided looking at anything but his calloused feet. The bear followed close behind.

"Why are you so interested in my locket, Major Bridger?" the widow asked. "And why wait until now of all times to ask your questions?"

"Now that is a mystery, ain't it? Could be I never thought that locket mattered much until it ended up in enemy hands."

The widow kept her peace until they moved into the hills beyond the battlefield, but by then, Bridger's concerns had dug themselves into her thoughts. "It was to keep him alive," she found herself admitting.

Major Bridger glanced at her. "And what sort of holy man could make such promises?"

"No sort of holy man, I assure you Major Bridger," the widow scoffed. She breathed deep. "He came through last July with a shipment of gold. I took him for a wizard, much like yourself."

Bridger grunted but did his best to ignore the unintended insult. "An Alder wizard most like. Was it empty when you bought it?"

"I suppose so," the widow sighed. "It had a sort of darkness inside that I could never quite see. But he did something to it. And to me." The next words came hard. "He sealed my life up inside and closed it tight."

"With your permission?"

"With my permission," the widow confirmed.

Bridger let out a long, slow sigh. "And what about the person wearing your locket?"

"That person cannot die, Major Bridger."

"The gift of eternal life," Bridger marveled. "But sapping the life of one to protect another don't sit right with me."

"I wanted my husband to survive," the widow defended. "I wanted to take away his fear. I wanted to give him the power to achieve greatness." She glanced at the corpse and in a weaker voice, added, "But it seems I was a fool, Major Bridger. And now my life is around the neck of another."

In that moment, a flood of rage filled her breast.

"Maybe so," said Bridger. "But it could be him taking that locket turned out to be a kindness."

"Most unlikely, Major Bridger," the widow shot.

"What if it had kept your husband alive through the mutilations? What if the good Lieutenant were out here freezing to death without the ability to die?"

"Then he would still be alive so that I might nurse him back to health!" The widow's rage intensified. "It was my life to give, Major Bridger!"

The wind grew stronger, and rage became a sharp pain in the widow's breast. She gasped and stumbled against Bridger. It felt like someone was pounding at her chest from the inside. Through her pain, she realized someone was trying to open the locket. Her clenched teeth kept her from screaming as she tumbled to the earth and began writhing in the snow.

Bridger dropped the Lieutenant and knelt before the widow. He called roots from the earth to hold her in place and removed his knife from its leather sheath. The sheath, he forced into her mouth to keep her from harming her teeth. Little by little, the widow settled, but her breath continued to heave. Her eyes rolled back into her skull, and the winds died to a constant sigh. The snow kept falling.

The widow's sweat and suffering lingered in the air. Bridger tried to sense the threads of Alder magic binding her body to the locket, but he'd never been tuned for such things. Just a bit, he thought he spotted something glowing through the fabric of her clothes. With his knife and fingertips, he peeled back the buttons on her coat and blouse. It was age rather than cold that had his fingers shaking. He dared not touch her skin, because it wasn't his to touch, but he did watch that glowing scar between her breasts.

Once he'd seen what he needed to see, he buttoned the widow back up and took his sheath from her mouth. It came easy. With a bit of help from the bear, he struggled to his feet.

But when that glimmer of red light in the sky caught Bridger's eye, he all but forgot about the widow and her husband. He hauled himself to the top of a nearby hill and looked out into the distance. A ring of clouds far, far away pulsed like a fiery heart. Bridger drew strength from the earth. His feet warmed until they felt hot, and Bridger grew until he could grow no taller. He put strength into his weary eyes. They ached against their sockets, but he could never quite see the source of that light through the heavy snows.

And then, all at once, the clouds went dark.

Bridger wiped a hand across his face and let the strength sink back into the earth. The full weight of his twilight years penetrated his muscles and joints, and a grunt escaped his lips.

Fear of old age and death tugged at Bridger's heart.

"Eternal life," he marveled.

Despite knowing the widow's locket was twisted from Alder gold and despite knowing it had done unforgivable things to her, he'd be damned if he didn't want it for himself.

If it had lost any of its power, there'd be hell to pay.

It's an easy thing to think bad of a man for hiding darkness in his heart, but I suppose we always do that to our heroes. We like thinking of them as something more than human, unbound by fears, desires, and lowly urges. Portugee had only started sensing Bridger's secrets in the days leading up to his departure. One might say he was on the cusp of seeing Bridger for what he truly was: a man who had given much to the world, but who was still nothing but a man.

Some might wonder if this was why Bridger had him sent away.

Portugee had been wondering that very thought when the red light rose from the east and arched overhead as if the gates of hell had opened up. The horses whinnied and threatened to bolt, but Portugee reined back and drew the fear from his horse with a gentle touch. Corporal Bailey struggled a moment longer but had his horse calm soon enough. Portugee dismounted and guided his horse beneath some trees, while Bailey drew his revolver and circled in place.

Portugee hissed at his companion and waved him over. Bailey circled a few more times but had the good sense to hide himself. He lacked the good sense to keep quiet. "Sky's turned to blood," Bailey whimpered, but Portugee lifted a hand, closed his eyes, and listened. The heavy snows and creaking trees confused the air, but Portugee could hear frightened voices pushing against the gusty wind. The language was that of the Lakota Sioux. Portugee didn't understand the words but he knew the sounds.

"We are being hunted," Portugee whispered.

"'Course we're being hunted," fumed Bailey. "Ain't the bigger issue here that we just seen blood fill the sky?"

Portugee didn't much care to sit around pondering life's bigger questions, what with their lives in danger. The pulsing light overhead might have been a mystery, but it benefitted them in their predicament. It put fear into the hearts of those in pursuit and caused them to break their cover. How long the scouts had been following them, he couldn't say.

Without waiting for Bailey, Portugee mounted his horse and started southeast. He hoped confusion would occupy their pursuers long enough for him to put himself downwind of their position. If he lost Bailey in the meanwhile, all the better.

But Portugee didn't lose Bailey. The man came riding up behind like he was headlining a carnival. "What're you doing going towards that light?" Bailey growled. Portugee reined back on his horse. He drew the colonel's ivory-handled shooter and pointed it at the man. Bailey's eyes widened even more but he kept quiet. Portugee returned the gun to his belt and kept riding.

Corporal Bailey never stopped mumbling, but it was a silent sort of mumbling. He let out one more yip of fear once the red light disappeared, but Portugee decided to forgive the man.

Portugee kept his senses tuned to the Lakota scouts. Their voices had stilled, but he started smelling their horses once he and Bailey had covered enough ground. It wouldn't be long before the scouts discovered they had lost the trail, Portugee figured. The wind and snow could do wonders for hiding tracks, but they made for unreliable allies. He knew the scouts wouldn't be fooled long.

But the smell of horses receded, and some time later, Portugee allowed himself to hope that they'd evaded their hunters for the time being. He began looking for a place to haul up for a few hours and give the horses some much needed rest before dawn.

He found something soon enough: a clump of pines along an eastern slope. They dismounted and guided their horses into the heart of the clump. Needles grabbed at them, but it was a small price to pay for shelter from the wind.

"I didn't much care for you pointing your gun at me," Corporal Bailey grumbled once the horses were situated.

Portugee put a finger to his lips. "It is time to rest," he whispered.

Bailey put on a scowl. "I'm just sayin' that . . ."

"And you will not talk."

Bailey threw up his hands. He dropped onto his blanket and lowered his hat.

For hardly the first time that night, Portugee cursed the colonel for saddling him with such a man.

Rather than sleep, Portugee kept watch. He put his whole body into feeling the earth for the Lakota scouts, but he couldn't quite grip the threads of power hiding there. That Bridger could draw that power with such ease, while Portugee could hardly sense it, had often vexed him. As a child, it'd been easier. Portugee abandoned the effort and relied on his more common senses. He heard the scouts all right, and more than once, but they rode by both times without stopping. After the second pass, they didn't come back. The weather had chosen sides, it seemed.

In the minutes leading to dawn, Portugee started readying his horse. He hoped to leave Bailey behind, but the man snorted awake and joined in the effort. Only the horses made any sound, but theirs was blessedly quiet. Right around the time Portugee started wondering if Bailey had learned his lesson, the man asked, "What'd you think turned those clouds red?"

Portugee didn't answer. Truth is he'd been wondering the same but had arrived nowhere with his thoughts.

"You're a sonofabitch, you know that?"

Portugee put a finger to his lips.

The wind had died to a whisper, but the snow continued to fall.

Even during the day, the blizzard made for tough riding. Portugee tried to guide his horse around the snowdrifts, but sometimes there wasn't anywhere else to go but higher ground. The flakes might have been light as dust, but they still stung when the breeze picked up. Portugee's beard and hat offered some protection, but they didn't cover everything. More than once, Portugee considered tying his handkerchief around his nose and mouth, but he needed to smell the air and taste the wind.

Come midday, Portugee decided to make due south for the Bozeman Trail. It seemed they'd lost the scouts for the present, but they'd also lost too much time riding rough. With any hope, by nightfall they'd reach Fort Reno, where Portugee intended to lose Bailey for good.

Things went to plan. The commander at Fort Reno saw to their well-being once he heard of their mission and the grave state of things at Fort Kearny. Portugee asked for a pair of beds but didn't sleep more than a wink before returning to the trail alone and with a fresh horse.

But lo-and-behold, there came Bailey riding up behind after a mere hour of blessed solitude. "Colonel promised me a three-hundred-dollar bonus if I keep you safe, and I intend to collect!" the man shouted.

"I will ride this road alone."

"You're gonna have to shoot me."

Bailey had the smell of a man with angry resolve. Yes, there was some fear in there too, but it had been buried beneath his other emotions.

Portugee had no such resolve. Without another word, he kept riding. "Ain't never known anyone so bad at being friendly," Bailey grumbled.

The comment stung Portugee more than it should have. Connecting with folks had never been something he cared to do, but deep down, he longed for it.

In that moment, he thought of the Widow Grummond.

Now, I'm sorry to say the widow hadn't once thought of Portugee that day despite rumblings through the fort that someone had gone south to request reinforcements. She woke in the infirmary that morning and spent her day helping to tend to the dead, but she could only work a little at a time. Her heartbeat felt fainter than ever, and every little exertion left her breathless.

The locket was broken, she concluded.

"I'm dying," the widow whispered to herself as she packed her saddlebags that evening. Her plan was to go out hunting for the locket, but she knew she wouldn't get far in such a state. A knock on the door sparked some life back into her. "Major Bridger?" she voiced, but when she opened the door, she found Missus Carrington.

The widow couldn't help her disappointment. She'd hoped to confide in the major, but nobody had seen him or his bear all day. His interest in the locket had concerned her, but she knew of nobody else who might understand such secrets.

"May we speak, Francis?" the other woman asked.

The Widow Grummond stepped aside, and Missus Carrington entered. She carried a lamp, which she set on a table, before finding a chair. A worried look crossed her face. "My, but you look of death," she gasped.

The widow frowned at the other woman. "Or perhaps I look like a wife who has lost her husband."

"Yes, of course. Francis, forgive me for my poor manners this evening."

After a sigh, the widow shook her head. "No, I'm the one who should be apologizing. That was unfair of me to say."

"It was justified under the circumstances." A spell of silence passed before Missus Carrington added, "We soldiers' wives go through all our adult lives making such sacrifices for our husbands, but what's a woman to do when her husband makes the ultimate sacrifice?"

The widow forced a smile and said, "Find some way to move on, I suppose." After a sigh, she added, "Sounds so easy spoken out loud like that." The widow nudged the topic aside with a shake of the head and lowered her gaze. She appreciated Missus Carrington's attempt at consoling her, but her mind was in a different place. "How may I help you, Margaret?" she asked.

"Francis, I shan't keep you long." Missus Carrington straightened her back and folded her hands in her lap. "I'd like the pair of us to arrange a Christmas celebration. Nothing extravagant, I assure you. Just something to give folks a bit of peace for a few hours on Christmas day."

The widow considered her saddlebags and admitted to herself that she'd be going nowhere. "I'll do what I can," she said.

"I know you will. And perhaps this will help take your mind off things."

"It might," the widow hoped. The truth was she welcomed the distraction. Fears of a possible attack on the men collecting the bodies from the battlefield that morning had put everyone on edge, and with those efforts over, everyone was now back to fearing an attack on the fort. The widow couldn't help but share in that fear even as she struggled to manage her own.

But another feeling had started gnawing at the widow's breast that day. It came at her as she helped tend to the bodies of those who had died, and it took all of her willpower to try and bury the feeling. She knew it to be more painful than fear or sadness. She knew it more powerful than anger or rage.

Had you asked the widow about this feeling, she would have had nothing to say. The fact is it had yet to grow into something she could truly understand.

That feeling was guilt, and it, more than anything else, would tear her apart.

Loss does funny things to a person, don't you think? It can make a person feel like they have a blizzard raging on the inside. I suppose the gray calm before the storm is the numbness one feels after the shock passes. Maybe those large, slow flakes that take time to settle are the sadness that follows. Anger might be the sharp, icy flakes that sting when they strike flesh. And rage? Maybe rage is the wind: always present, always waiting to make itself known. Let's say all these things are true, and a widow's broken heart can become the sky. How might guilt show itself, do you think? Maybe it would feel like the bitter cold that swallows the earth after the storm clears; the cold that freezes the stars in the air like the snowflakes God forgot to drop. Such a cold could make a man forget himself. Before long, that man might feel like he was galloping among those stars and finding trails one can only dream.

Portugee snapped awake when Bailey fell from his horse. It took a moment for him to collect his thoughts. He realized the cold had all but shut him down, and the horses weren't much better off. Portugee dismounted but took a few moments to stomp life back into his heart and legs. The snow came to his knees, but he managed to haul Bailey to a shallow patch beneath some pines. Portugee tended to the horses as best he could and started a fire. It was a dangerous thing to do, but the cold had stripped him of his fears. He collapsed by the fire but kept his eyes open as long as he could. It wasn't long.

Portugee woke some time later to find a pair of Lakota scouts sitting by his fire. One man carried his ivory-handled shooter, while Bailey's sat in the snow by their feet.

Bailey snored on as if all was well with the world.

A scout shouted something after noticing Portugee was awake, and a Lakota warrior emerged from the darkness and approached the fire. Despite the cold, he wore nothing but a buffalo robe belted about his waist.

The man smelled of rage.

Portugee sat up and started planning his escape but realized their horses were gone.

And then Portugee noticed something else. Around the warrior's neck dangled the widow's locket. Portugee heard two heartbeats emanating from that man, but the widow's sounded weak. The locket may have been clasped shut, but red light leaked from the edges as if it'd been damaged. The light highlighted the man's face from below like he had an ember hanging from his neck.

Portugee didn't know it at the time, but that young man was a warrior named Crazy Horse. In a few years' time, he would take Red Cloud's place as Chief of the Oglala Sioux.

The warrior sat and glared at Portugee. The snow around him started melting at once. "We would like to share your fire," he said.

Portugee sat up. "Fire belongs to no man," he said.

Crazy Horse grunted. "It belongs to some men, I think," he said. "Some more than others."

Portugee couldn't keep his eyes off the damaged locket. "Where did you find that?" he asked.

"I took it." Crazy Horse lifted the little dove between his thumb and forefinger. The scouts shrank back. "They're afraid."

"It belongs to a woman I know," Portugee said.

The man let the dove drop against his chest. "Then I will return it to her if she asks for its return."

Portugee sat up a little straighter. "Allow me to ask in her stead."

"You can ask," Crazy Horse said, but he flipped his hand as if brushing the topic aside. From somewhere, he revealed Colonel Carrington's letter. "You are traveling to request more men to protect your Fort Phil Kearny."

"It is not my fort," Portugee corrected.

This drew a brief frown from the warrior. It was so brief that Portugee almost missed it. "This letter tells me you know we are planning an attack. It says here that you have an informant. Who is this traitor?"

Had Portugee been a soldier, he would have declined Crazy Horse's friendly request for information, but Portugee wasn't a soldier. A vision of that Cheyenne informant crossed through his thoughts. Portugee remembered the scar at the end of the man's nose.

"I have a price," Portugee said. He eyed the locket and thought of the Widow Grummond.

"Don't you tell him, you foreign sonofabitch," piped Corporal Bailey.

Portugee hadn't realized Bailey had woken, and the scowl on Crazy Horse's face suggested he was equally surprised. The man said something to the scouts, and one of them stood.

But Bailey scrambled to his feet, and from his boot, he pulled another revolver.

The sound of gunfire cracked the night, and the two scouts fell into the snow. One died right then and there, while the other hollered his suffering into the sky. A third bullet came for Crazy Horse, but the man brushed it aside. Bailey turned his shooter on Portugee before realizing that his previous bullet had missed its mark. He fired again, but Crazy Horse grabbed the wounded scout and disappeared faster than you can blink.

But Portugee could still smell the man. What's more, he could smell which way he'd fled.

"What the hell," Bailey trembled. Portugee stood and grabbed the gun from Bailey's hand before knocking him into the snow. The gun, he tossed as far as he could. "You were going to sell us out!" Bailey shouted. "Your own kind!"

"You are not my kind," Portugee growled. From the ground, he grabbed the letter to General Cooke and tossed it at Bailey. "It is now up to you to deliver this letter."

Bailey kept yelling until Portugee started taking off his clothes. Then he wrinkled his nose and said, "Damn fool's gone crazy."

Portugee ignored him. The bitter cold felt like fire against his skin. Ignoring the sensation wasn't easy. Once down to bare skin, Portugee knelt and placed both hands on the snow. The threads of earth waited for him there, but they remained out of reach. Portugee pushed aside his envy for Bridger's power. The fact is he knew he needed to reclaim his own understanding of the earth. As a child, he'd suffered for it and buried it deep.

I suppose you could say Portugee had his secrets too. He kept his true power secret, even from himself. He also kept secret his love for a married woman. It was that love that had him unable to shake the sound of her dying heart from his mind.

A deep longing overcame Portugee, and his senses descended into the earth. He drew those threads of power up into his body. His hands and feet started feeling warm and then hot. The snow melted around him as he imagined his buried self. He imagined fur on his back and ears that stood straight and tall. He imagined sharp, curved teeth and eyes that glowed in the moonlight. With a scream and then a snarl, Portugee became a wolf. A dingy, brown wolf, but a wolf nonetheless. When his nose was at its longest, he snorted the air for Crazy Horse's trail and found it straight away.

Portugee bounded after the man. He chased him into the foothills and on into the mountains. He ran along cliffs and around trees. He pushed onward through the night, but the man's scent grew faint and then vanished altogether. Portugee called out to his brethren and sisters for news of the warrior but few responded and none had anything to say.

But Portugee wouldn't give up. He kept running. Kept calling. He wanted to be the man who returned the widow's locket and eased her suffering. Come dawn, one of his sisters answered with news, and Portugee followed her song. It guided him back towards the Bozeman Trail. They met along the foothills. Her white fur shimmered in the morning light. She had pups tucked away in a den. Portugee smelled fear on her. It wasn't Portugee or Crazy Horse she feared but another power.

Bear, she kept whimpering. Bear.

Portugee smelled it too, but he dared not dwell too deep on that scent. He needed Crazy Horse fresh in his mind. Before long, he caught the man's trail. He ran without eating. His muscles wore away, and his gut ached, but he kept running. Around sunset, he found Bailey's dead body somewhere south of the Bozeman Trail. The man had gotten lost and frozen to death, it seemed.

But Crazy Horse's scent permeated everything in that place. Two beating hearts echoed through the woods, but wherever Portugee looked, he found nothing but trees.

"You look better this way," declared Crazy Horse. Portugee followed the voice and found the man sitting high in a tree. He knew he needed to go back to being a man, but he also knew he'd worn his body down to its bones. The earth's power was the only thing keeping him alive.

But release that power, Portugee did, and he found himself naked in the snow and too weak to stand. The ice and air started burning his skin at once.

"Tell me the name of the man who has betrayed us," shouted Crazy Horse. His voice echoed through the trees and across the snow. "And I'll make a fire for you and feed you."

"Give me the woman's locket!" Portugee said with strength that surprised the both of them.

"I told you. She must ask me herself!"

"She could die!"

"Then she'll die." Crazy Horse leapt from the tree and landed with a foot on each side of Portugee's body. He grabbed Portugee by the hair and put a knife to his neck. "Tell me the name of our traitor."

Portugee licked his dried and bleeding lips. "I . . ." He swallowed. Truth is Portugee knew he wouldn't be able to help the widow if he died himself. "I do not know his name. But I know his face. Cheyenne." Portugee touched his nose and added, "A scar."

Crazy horse dropped Portugee's head. "I know this man." He stabbed the snow with his knife and straightened. Then, in a manner one might call tender, he bundled Portugee up in furs. Neither man spoke, but at no point did Portugee smell anything but anger on the Lakota warrior.

By the time Portugee was settled and sitting by the fire, the sun had set. Crazy Horse sat across from him. They ate rabbit. The food churned in Portugee's gut, but he kept it down.

"Did you kill the man wearing that locket?" Portugee asked.

"I did."

Portugee nodded and watched the fire. "Do you lament killing him?"

"No more than he would have lamented killing me."

It was around then that Portugee heard footsteps approaching through the snow. He looked out into the darkness, but the firelight had dulled his eyes. The man's scent arrived before his flesh. Portugee smelled fear and strength. And bear.

It was Bridger.

The bear lingered in the darkness, while the mountain wizard joined them by the fire. "Who's your young friend, Portugee?" he asked, friendly as could be.

Portugee shook his head. Bridger's unexpected appearance had him feeling worried and twisted up inside. He glanced at Crazy Horse and found him glaring at the newcomer.

Bridger tapped Portugee's shoulder. "Finally gave in and put on a new shirt. How's it suit me?"

"It looks like your old shirt," Portugee rasped.

"Don't smell like it though," Bridger sighed. He turned to Crazy Horse and frowned. "Looks like you all but ruined that amulet you're wearing, my young brave. Can't say I'm pleased about that."

Crazy Horse said nothing.

"Can't have dark magic like that out in the wild, so just hand it over, and I'll keep an eye on it."

"You would take it for your own?" Portugee asked.

"The good widow needs a man who can repair it and keep it safe. For her own sake."

"It is not yours to keep," Portugee whispered.

Bridger fingered his ear. "Say again, Portugee?"

Portugee felt himself reaching for the earth. He found those threads easier than before. "It belongs to the lady Grummond," Portugee insisted.

Bridger pointed at Crazy Horse. "Then what's he doing with it?" he boomed. His voice rattled snow from the surrounding trees.

Only then did Portugee notice Bridger's bear circling the camp.

"Fact is that woman was meddling in powers she never should have touched. I'll get her permission, of course, but I will be taking it."

As the bear reared up over Crazy Horse, Portugee drew deep from the earth and leapt after it. He was wolf by the time they clashed. Crazy Horse flew into the trees, but by then Bridger had become a giant and there was no hiding. That old mountain wizard snapped a limb from the trunk of a tree and swung it at the Lakota brave, but Crazy Horse let out a shout that shook the earth. Bridger stumbled, and the warrior came down at him from above.

And there upon the snow was the final struggle for the widow's locket, a struggle that moved deep into the night. Bridger and his fears. Crazy Horse and his anger. Portugee and his longing. And that bear? Well, he was just a bear, but he was mean when he wanted to be.

When the widow woke that night to the strife in her breast, she wept. Oh, how she wept. It was the first time she'd wept since she held Missus Carrington outside headquarters. Her chest ached with longing for the flesh she'd lost. Her chest ached with the fear of solitude. Anger attacked her with all its might, but the widow found herself angry only at herself.

It was in that vulnerable moment the widow lost control of the guilt she'd buried, and it came at her strong. It struck her like a bull and overwhelmed her other feelings.

There, curled up on her bed, she admitted to herself that she'd twisted her husband's thoughts with promises of immortality. She'd put the fire of ambition into him, and his mistakes might have killed others.

A weaker person might have twisted that guilt into another fantasy, but the widow wasn't that sort of person. She wrestled that bull deep into the night. Only after she'd beaten it back into its cage did she admit she lacked the strength to keep fighting. The life she knew was over, but she couldn't move on with that locket weighing her down.

The widow loosed the bull. She grabbed it by the horns and let it chase those threads of magic into the sky. When she found herself looming above a battle between three powerful forces and one grizzly bear, she pointed the bull at the locket and charged.

The impact devastated that little corner of the woods. The locket fell to the ground, unharmed, but all at once, the threads cracked and then snapped. That woman picked her locket out of the snow and cast it into the air.

She had quite an arm on her.

In that moment, the heart in her breast started beating again.

She opened her eyes and found herself back home with that bull in bed next to her. Yes, her guilt would be with her for a while longer, but she now had the strength to keep fighting.

That woman was ready to brave the Wyoming wilds.

Not until sunrise on Christmas morning did she leave the place she'd lived with her husband. She carried her saddlebags to the flag staff and studied the meager Christmas decorations. A tree and some wreaths were all she and Missus Carrington could manage. The sky was clear and warm. The woman listened to the crack and crackle of melting snow beneath the rising sun and waited for the others to arrive.

She had something to say, and she wanted everyone to hear.

Far away, mere miles from Fort Laramie, Portugee picked himself up out of the snow. He'd been awake for some time, but his broken and confused mind needed time to collect itself. The last thing he remembered was that bolt of lightning coming down on them from above. He'd be damned if he didn't see that woman riding the bolt like it was some kind of horse. Next he knew, he was flying through the air and into darkness.

It was one hell of a vision.

Bridger and Crazy Horse were nowhere to be found.

The smell of cooking meat drew him toward Fort Laramie that morning. His fur kept him warm, but as the sun rose higher, he found himself feeling hot. Portugee released his grip on the earth and became a man, but he started freezing at once.

The fort was all but empty. Here and there, he heard singing, laughing, the clapping of hands. It was Christmas morning, Portugee realized.

A pair of soldiers found him wandering about the fort naked as a jaybird. They spoke to him and wrapped him in a blanket, but Portugee found himself unable to say much. "General Cooke," he managed through his chattering teeth. "General Cooke."

At last, they brought him to the General's quarters, and Portugee wandered into the final scene of our story. The heat from the fireplace surprised him. Everywhere he looked were beautiful men in sparkling full dress and handsome women wearing hooped gowns, with their hair bundled up in shimmery hairnets. A glittering tree reached to the ceiling in the middle of that room. It was covered in gold and silver decorations. Some folks gawked at Portugee, while others whispered amongst themselves. Candles flickered everywhere he looked. When Portugee closed his eyes, he could still see those candles.

Someone spoke at last, but the voice wasn't meant for him.

"I assume you have some explanation for bringing this man here and disrupting my Christmas party?" the voice growled.

"He keeps speaking your name, General," one of the men said.

"Well, he seems plenty quiet now."

And then that man was speaking to Portugee.

"How may I help you, son? Son?"

Portugee collected his wits, but before he could speak, the general turned to his gathering and charmed, "Well, it is a day of charity, I suppose. Perhaps this is the Lord himself come to test us."

Some folks chuckled. Others forced grins and nodded.

To the men, the General said, "Get this man some food and clothes, and send him on his way."

The men touched Portugee's shoulders, but he wouldn't have it. He had something to tell the General. Those men came at him, but Portugee cast his blanket to the floor and became his wolf self. The General's guests started to panic, but when Portugee leapt onto the table and howled, everyone fell silent and listened. At first, Portugee sang to get everyone's attention, but then he kept singing. He sang about his longing. He sang about his childhood. He sang the song of a silent man come into his own. That song gave him power. Before long, he was singing his intentions to make himself known to the woman he loved. Maybe she'd take him or maybe she wouldn't, but he sang his intentions to try.

In that manner, Portugee declared himself to the world.

There were plenty of tall tales told about Portugee Phillips after that. No, they didn't rival Bridger's stories, but they were respectable nonetheless.

Back at Fort Kearny, the former Missus Grummond had no need to howl. When she stood at last and shouted, "I've got something that needs saying," the voices stilled and the carols died, and the woman said what she needed to say. She told everyone about how she'd ached to see her husband glorified in battle. She admitted she'd encouraged him to bring the fight to the enemy despite his orders. She admitted that she'd convinced him the locket would make him immortal. Not a single arrow will harm you, she'd promised. Not two. Not a hundred arrows would harm you, she'd promised. Show your strength and come back a hero and don't you care who you trample along the way.

And then she asked forgiveness from everyone there at that modest Christmas gathering. A long spell of silence passed before Missus Carrington placed a hand on her shoulder and started to sing. Then came another hand. And another. Before long, every man, woman, and child was singing. Their voices spread through the fort and ascended over the stockade.

It was a mighty powerful Christmas gift, and that woman treasured it.

Now you might be asking yourself what's real in this story and what's not. Truth is Bridger sometimes wonders this too. He thought he had things figured out until he saw that woman flashing through the sky. Magic was men's work in those days, but some women practiced in secret. Bridger started wondering if she'd made that locket herself.

But speaking of Bridger, I figure you're all wondering what happened to him. Rumor has it he died, but this isn't so. He fixed up that locket good as new and now wears the heart of that old grizzly bear around his neck. Turns out, they were distant cousins. I suppose one could see this as Bridger's story after all, one last tall tale about how he defeated death. Maybe Portugee and the Widow Grummond are nothing more than bit players in his story.

Or maybe Bridger just wants every story to be about him.

Guilty as charged, I suppose.

  Copyright © 2024 Hatrack River Enterprises   Web Site Hosted and Designed by